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Bob Conklin, CEO of YMCA of Catawba Valley, addresses a group of residents about the possibility of creating a Y in Watauga County during a community meeting Tuesday at Watauga Medical Center's auditorium. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2012-10-02 20:22:16
Last modified: 2012-10-02 20:22:16

YMCA meeting draws curious crowd

More than 50 people gathered Tuesday evening in Boone to learn more about the YMCA organization and explore what it would take to create one in Watauga County.

The meeting, hosted by the nonprofit organization High Country Recreation, was intended to restart conversations about the community’s indoor recreation needs that had stalled in the past few years.

Bob Conklin, CEO of the Catawba Valley YMCA, provided an overview of the tax-exempt charity’s programs and how new sites are created.

“The potential is huge for a YMCA up here in Boone,” Conklin said.

In the past, each Y was an independent agency, but the national YMCA is no longer setting up the facilities that way, he said. If Watauga County started a YMCA, it would be part of the Catawba Valley network, he said.

“When you’re part of a bigger Y, there’s a lot more expertise and resources,” Conklin said.

The typical Y is about 35,000 square feet and includes a gym, pool, wellness center, locker rooms, babysitting and outdoor sports fields, Conklin said. Many YMCAs also partner with schools to target children’s health issues, particularly with swimming education, and other community needs.

A facility of the typical size would cost about $6 million to $7 million to build, Conklin said, or about $168 to $170 per square foot.

Additional costs include an executive director and roughly five full-time salaried positions along with 70 to 80 part-time workers.

When a YMCA is preparing to build in a community, the organization typically embarks on a $1 million campaign designed to cover expenses for the first three years, Conklin said.

The Y also builds its revenues from membership dues, program fees, some United Way funding and grants, he said.

About 60 percent of the Y’s expenses are in salaries, benefits and training. Additional money is spent on occupancy costs, insurance, supplies and equipment.

In some cases, YMCAs start as program sites, rather than full facilities, although Conklin said he believed the Boone area had the population and interest level to support a full facility.

Lee Jessen, who said he was involved in a task force that explored a YMCA possibility years ago, said he felt interest had grown in having another indoor recreation option.

“We weren’t as united as we could have been,” Jessen said of previous attempts. “I’m hoping that type of situation has changed. I have a good feeling that we’re more on track now.”

To determine whether the support is adequate, the Y typically starts by conducting feasibility testing that includes questionnaires and an assessment of the population, Conklin said.

The largest segment of Y users are 30 to 54, although the organization focuses on families and encourages them to join together, he said.

In Catawba Valley, typical membership dues are $40 per month for adults or $60 per month for families, he said, although those rates vary among locations.

“We’ve got a very liberal financial aid policy,” Conklin said, adding that the YMCA offers a sliding fee scale to ensure that no one is denied participation because of financial concerns.

Some sites have worked out arrangements with neighboring YMCAs to allow residents to use either location with a single membership, Conklin said.

Gretchen Piasecny, a private wellness coach from Blowing Rock, said she believed affordability would be key in a future fitness facility. She praised the work of the Paul Broyhill Wellness Center but said the dues were out of reach for some local families.

“The Wellness Center cannot provide what we need as a community,” Piasecny said.

Although Tuesday’s meeting was a preliminary discussion, the inevitable question of where a YMCA might go naturally arose.

Conklin said the YMCAs generally require about 10 to 15 acres but can be done on five to six, he said. Watauga County currently has a roughly two-acre parcel on the campus of Watauga High School that was set aside for a possible recreation center.

“Any discussion of land is premature,” said Brian Lowe, a member of High Country Recreation. “… We don’t need to start off with stuff that’s going to create conflict right off.”

Conflict has never been far from recreation center discussions in the past. In 2010, contention rose to a fever pitch before the defeat of a proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase that would have been designated for a recreation and community center.

Lowe stressed that a partnership between public, private and nonprofit groups would be essential to meeting the identified need for more indoor recreation availability.

To move forward, Lowe said he will seek volunteers for a steering committee to start down that path.

“There’s going to have to be a clear, viable plan put forth that everybody can come around,” Lowe said. “Other than that, nothing is going to be accomplished.”