News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

December 9, 2010

B-Sides: Y Terre Haute? The need still exists

TERRE HAUTE — A hundred and 18 years is a long time. Few things live that long, aside from giant tortoises and lobsters.

As of today, Terre Haute’s last connection to a legacy that began in 1892 is no longer alive.

Riverbank Family & Fitness closed Wednesday. Actually, that facility on the banks of the Wabash River had only worn that name since October. Most folks still knew the place by its previous name, the Terre Haute Family Y — a merger of the local YWCA and YMCA. The Terre Haute Young Men’s Christian Association organized in 1892, using rented quarters. A decade later, the Young Women’s Christian Association organized and opened at 664 Ohio St.

And for the next 118 years, through two World Wars, the Great Depression, the city’s General Strike, the JFK assassination and a variety of mayors and governors, Terre Haute had a Y (or the spinoff of a Y).

’Til now.

“It’s the most miserable day of my adult life,” said Tom Jones, president of the Riverbank board and the guy who bore the difficult task on Tuesday of explaining the closing.

A decade of financial ups and downs toughened in the latter half of the 2000s. The YWCA and YMCA combined resources in 2006 as a matter of economic survival. So, the YMCA’s old building at Sixth and Walnut streets closed, and the two organizations moved in together at the YWCA’s newer riverside location.

The recession hit in 2007. Outstanding debts lingered. A trust fund, set up exclusively for facility improvements, paid for excellent upgrades to the building this year. As that work was completed, the facility’s board decided to disaffiliate from the Y; the blended agency had dropped its YMCA connection years before, and its service to both genders no longer fit the YWCA’s mission statement, new executive director Greg Ruark explained in October.

Finally, an extensive membership drive boosted the numbers, but not by enough to meet payroll and pay the utilities, Jones said.

“We weren’t able to make it work,” he said. “This wasn’t an impulsive decision. It was a gut-wrenching decision.”

Today, what remains is a newly renovated facility with a full-sized gym, pool and fitness amenities — and no occupant. The future will include some method of resolving debts, including those owed to folks who paid for memberships. And, for now, possession of the building will, apparently, revert to the City of Terre Haute, which owns the land.

But does the future, near or distant, also include a reincarnated Terre Haute Y? Let’s hope so.

The lack of a YMCA or YWCA seems like a significant void on the résumé of a city the size of Terre Haute. There are 2,687 YMCA branches serving 10,000 communities in America, said Mamie Moore, director of public relations at YMCA national headquarters in Chicago. The YWCA serves 2 million women through 300 local associations in the United States, according to its national website.

Terre Haute is the 475th-largest city, by population, in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

Numerically, it would seem that City No. 475 should possess one of those 2,687 YMCAs, if not one of those 300 YWCAs.

Life isn’t fair or neatly ordered, though. “There’s a lot more competition” for Ys, Jones said, “and the other reality is the economy.”

The Great Recession struck some places harder than others. Through the economic downturn, unemployment was worse in Indiana than in the rest of the nation, and worse in Terre Haute than in the rest of the state.

The Ys also compete for members with privately owned fitness centers, even though a Y is more of a community center. (Most, like Terre Haute, also offer pools, popular especially with seniors, unlike most fitness outlets.)

On a national scale, “Overall, we’re a strong organization,” Moore said of the YMCA. “In communities, with the economy as it is, we do know some Ys are having difficulties.” Meanwhile, two YWCAs — also more than a century old — have closed in Lewiston, Maine, and in Gloversville, N.Y., this year.

YMCAs, like other nonprofit agencies nationwide, “went into a cost-containment mode during the recession,” said Eric Ellsworth, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, which includes 13 branches in Marion County and six surrounding counties.

“YMCAs in central Indiana are what I would consider to be flat in terms of membership and up in terms of program use,” Ellsworth said.

In a nutshell, a core of loyal patrons is using their Y even more in tough times. That situation can strain budgets.

Still, Ellsworth has heard other YMCAs around the country are beginning to bounce back from the recession. In Indiana, a new YMCA just opened in Lebanon, and another will open in Avon next year, expanding the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis’ lineup. “So we’re anticipating good growth in membership in 2011, because of the opening of those two branches,” Ellsworth said.

Terre Haute, even amid the current frustration and sadness, should draw hope from the openings in Lebanon and Avon. Neither community had a Y before. By contrast, Terre Haute already has a century-plus Y legacy, and a sharp building waiting to be used. “It’s a beautiful facility. It’s an energy-efficient facility,” Jones said. “It just needs a different business model.”

Along those lines, Ellsworth said the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis is willing to assist a Terre Haute effort to create a “fresh, new YMCA presence for the Terre Haute area.

“My hope and my prayer,” Ellsworth said, “is that Terre Haute will have a resurgence in their Y effort and that the YMCA will be back in that community soon.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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