News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

February 26, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Filling a Need: Vigo County YMCA expected to open this spring

TERRE HAUTE — Comebacks inspire hope. They also require lots of work.

Tenacity, energy (at levels way beyond black coffee and Red Bulls), thick skin and faith help, too. Rallying from bleak circumstances and avoiding cynicism is a big job.

“Bleak” pretty much summarizes Dec. 8, 2010.

That day, a history dating back 118 years in Terre Haute ended. Since 1892, the city had housed some form of a Y — the YMCA, YWCA, a merged Family Y, and (as in the final months of 2010) a spinoff of those organizations. The last link in that chain, the unaffiliated Riverbank Family and Fitness Center, shut down that December after its revenues from memberships fell significantly short of its monthly expenses.

As any death goes, the end was shocking (even after a long life) yet not surprising, sad, thorny and upsetting in the community and beyond. That day, the CEO of the YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, Eric Ellsworth, told the Tribune-Star, “My hope and prayer is that Terre Haute will have a resurgence in their Y effort and that the YMCA will be back in that community soon.”

Well, it’s happening. A new Vigo County YMCA is expected to open this spring, possibly as soon as April. The town can celebrate the people who saw potential instead of insurmountable obstacles.

Terre Haute should also appreciate the fact that it has friends who believe in this place outside the city limits.

As Deb Plummer clicked on the gymnasium lights in the 36,000-square-foot building Thursday morning, she said, “This is just such an amazing opportunity.”

Plummer serves as CEO of the YMCA of Clay County. Her organization began talking with Mayor Duke Bennett and the city of Terre Haute after the Riverbank closing was announced. (Control of the vacant property reverted to the city, and the Parks Department has paid for the utilities and maintenance since then.) After extensive study, deliberation and research, the Clay County group bid to reopen the facility as the Vigo County YMCA, and signed a lease with the Terre Haute Parks and Recreation board earlier this month.

The agreement gradually moves operational control of the facility to the new Vigo County YMCA. It will pay no rent for the first 12 months of the contract, and then begin monthly payments of $2,500. The city will cover the first two months’ utilities, but by the seventh month, the Vigo County YMCA will cover those costs.

“I don’t know how [the Parks Department] could have made it more possible for us to be successful,” Plummer said.

A tour Thursday morning revealed a facility ready to be occupied and used. It’s a $4.6-million building with $150,000 worth of contents, including a room full of neatly arranged free weights, cardio machines and other fitness equipment. In the year before Riverbank shut down, the structure received a new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, two locker rooms, interior painting, a new roof, new lighting and filtration for the pool, and resealing on the gym floor. A new main entrance was added on the northeast side, for better security.

“It’s really ready to go,” Plummer said.

Equally important is the belief that Terre Haute, America’s 475th-largest city, should have one of the nation’s 2,700 YMCAs. The loss of a YMCA or YWCA connection left a glaring gap on the community’s resume.

“I had a Realtor say that when new people come to the area, she hopes they don’t ask” about a Y, Plummer said.

It was like a car without a radio. Terre Haute’s first Young Men’s Christian Association branch actually opened right after the Civil War, but closed a few years later, according to local historian Mike McCormick. The YMCA opened more permanently here in 1892, followed a decade later by a YWCA. They functioned separately at different sites until merging in 2006 into a Family Y in the YWCA’s building at Fairbanks Park. All Y affiliations were dropped by the Riverbank organization in October 2010, just before the closing.

“Opening a YMCA in this location will kind of affirm the time and effort and money the people in this community have put into this facility,” Plummer said, “and returning it to use will kind of revitalize the area.”

Her mix of enthusiasm and pragmatism is impressive. She’s excited by the possibilities, yet Plummer and the YMCA of Clay County board (as well as the market research firm of Seer Analytic) have analyzed the Vigo County venture right down to the optimum temperature of the pool’s water.

Plummer, a 44-year-old mother of three, played college basketball at Southern Illinois University in the 1980s, earned a bachelor’s degree in athletic training and later a master’s from Campbell University. She began working for the YMCA of Clay County after her family moved from the Fort Wayne area to Brazil in 2003. Plummer started out as a summer camp director, and eventually became CEO in November 2010.

“So the YMCA is a great fit for me, personally, in what I value and to be a servant leader,” she said.

That job includes emphasizing a few important details to a curious general public, which Plummer methodically explained.

n The pool will indeed be open and fully utilized, with an aquatics director who will determine the water programs.

n The Clay and Vigo YMCAs will be part of an association, the YMCA of the Wabash Valley. The YMCA of Clay County — which has operated since 1927 — will remain autonomous, its fees will not go up, and won’t go toward funding the new Vigo County YMCA branch, Plummer said. Both branches will maintain separate advisory boards.

n The Vigo YMCA will “reach out” to people who had paid for full or partial memberships just before the Riverbank facility closed, Plummer said. The organization is working with the Indiana Attorney General’s office to craft Vigo County YMCA membership offers for 80 Riverbank members who filed a lawsuit over their unfulfilled fees.

n In the coming weeks, the Vigo County YMCA’s steering committee will begin meeting, followed by fundraising efforts, open houses and formal membership sales.

n Hiring of a separate staff for the Vigo branch will begin soon. It will included the equivalent of 24 full-time positions, but only four will actually be full time; the remainder will be part time, said Plummer, who will divide her time between both locations.

n A few programs offered at the old Family Y — such as preschool, dance and gymnastics — will not resume, Plummer said.

Plummer wants to allay concerns and earn support within the community.

“We know that some people will be a bit suspect, because of the way [Riverbank] closed,” she said.

Likewise, the Vigo County YMCA will not try to compete with existing fitness clubs and youth sports organizations. Instead, the aim is “to serve the underserved population,” Plummer said. The Y will focus on families and seniors, with offerings such as Zumba, kick-boxing and silver sneakers. The main gym, for example, could center on adult basketball games, or shoot-arounds for families.

The marketing study indicated the opening of the YMCA could attract 1,600 membership units, which would include 3,500 to 4,000 people. The 1,600 goal, Plummer thinks, is conservative.

“It’ll be fun to find out,” she said, grinning.

Comebacks depend on that kind of spirit.

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


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