The closing of the YMCA facility marks end of an era
The 58-year-old building had become an albatross.
ROCHESTER — From the moment the Rochester YMCA announced its decision to shutdown the 58-year-old facility in southwest Rochester, the social media response was instantaneous.
Some wondered how such a prosperous community like Rochester could no longer sustain the Y facility anymore. Others complained about how rundown and ramshackle the Y had become.
But mostly, the comments that flooded social media were about the memories — happy, youthful, endearing memories about an institution that once was a vital community pillar.
People, from all different ages and locations on the globe, recalled swimming lessons and summer camps at the Rochester Y; learning ballet and running on the track above the basketball court; and the overnight proms in the ‘70s.
Business deals were negotiated and hatched in the Y’s locker rooms and on its fitness floors. Friendships were formed and strengthened over racquetball games. Romances bloomed between weight-lifting reps.
The memories spoke to the fact that the Y was never just a fitness facility and, in its heyday, was a family-oriented community cornerstone. And its closure, set for Jan. 31, marks the end of an era.
Christopher Lange-Pearson, 25, recalled how as an elementary school student, he took his first swimming lessons at the Y. Youngsters worked their way up a skill ladder from “Guppy” to “Flying Fish.” He went to one-day summer camps.
But his most formative Y experience involved music. Lange-Pearson was in middle school at the time. Hanging out at the Y before the start of a camp, he saw some kids playing a video game called Guitar Hero. And one song they were playing was Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills.”
Lange-Pearson had been raised in a family of classical music lovers, so when they started playing the pulsing, shrieking tune, it was almost like an epiphany. Today, Lange-Pearson plays in his own heavy metal band and traces his love of the genre to that moment.
A day after announcing the Y building’s closure, Mike Lavin, vice president of operations for YMCA of the North, was on the phone with former Rochester Y executive director Mike Miller. Miller was recalling Rochester Y’s early days and how it got started in Rochester.
In the 1960s, the late state Rep. Dave Bishop was selling $1 Y memberships in hopes of convincing the community to start its own YMCA. He sold 500 of them and Rochester was convinced.
“When I hear the stories, no one talks about the building,” Lavin said. “They talk about the people they met, the community that is generated and the life-long friends that were created.”
The Y’s mission was always broader than physical fitness. It served as an incubator for a range of social service programs in the 1970s, from the Channel One food shelf to pre-school and victims service programs, said Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden.
It was that focus that always differentiated it from other workout facilities that began to proliferate in Rochester and eventually began the slow erosion of the Y's membership.
The Y was able to start and nourish these programs, because it had the membership and revenues to support their costs, Kiscaden said.
The Y worked with non-profits and area businesses to create programs to benefit troubled youth.
Dean Stenehjem, a former Y director, recalled how Honda Motor Company donated 15 mini-bikes for kids to ride. Landowners in the Chester Woods Park area allowed the kids to ride the bikes along the trails there. The only condition for the kids was that they stay out of trouble and do their school work.
“We would take the kids out riding if they had met certain criteria throughout the week,” Stenehjem said.
But eventually, the marketplace changed, and the Rochester Y no longer found itself as the only show in town. Competition ate into membership. And once memberships began to dwindle, it became harder for the Y to support its expanded mission.
Its demise was fueled by the growing number of athletic clubs and fitness centers that opened over the years that gave Rochester area residents more options to choose from.
The Rochester Athletic Club, the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, an exclusive club for Mayo Clinic employees, 125 Live senior center and other storefront operations made for a crowded marketplace.
Stenehjem, director of the Y when the Rochester Athletic Club opened its doors in 1993, said many predicted the Y’s doom at that point, that it wouldn’t be able to survive such a "magnificent" facility.
But the doomsayers proved to be wrong. Membership at the Y dropped for a couple of years after the opening of the RAC, but then bounced back, he said.
But the opening of the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center was damaging to the Y. Mayo Clinic officials argued that the impact would be limited, that the low-cost membership at the Abraham facility would encourage employees to keep both memberships. That optimistic scenario proved to be wrong.
“The (Abraham) healthy living center affected membership much more than the athletic club did,” Stenehjem said.
The changing nature of people’s athletic interests and tastes also created challenges for the Y.
Racquetball, once the craze of the 1970s and ‘80s, passed from the scene, leaving empty courts. Exercise went from team-oriented sports to individualized fitness.
In response to these changing tastes, Rochester Y adapted, often by building add-ons, making the building bigger and more expensive to operate.
“When we were talking about the expansion for the Aquatic Center, part of the discussion was, ‘maybe, we should leave this location and find some other location,'” said Stenehjem. “But the input from the community was, ‘no, we like where it’s at.’”
The situation eventually became unsustainable. With memberships and revenue declining, the building had effectively became an albatross, Kiscaden said.
“They tried a whole variety of different approaches,” Kiscaden said. “Maintaining a very large recreational workout facility that is over 50 years old is exceedingly expensive. And it doesn’t have all of the amenities that the new facilities have.”
The pandemic was the nail in the coffin, officials say. But even if there had been no pandemic, there was no longer going to be a Rochester Y that included the creaking, 58-year-old building in its future.
“That building did not have a long-term sustainable future,” Lavin said. “Pre-pandemic. Post-pandemic. That was obvious to anyone intricately involved with the operations.”