February 22, 2024

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YWCA Minneapolis members push for buyer to save fitness centers

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Some YWCA Minneapolis members are pushing for a public buyer to keep open the downtown and Uptown fitness facilities after the YWCA closes them Nov. 1.

The organization announced in August it was shutting down the fitness centers and pools, located in high-profile spots off Nicollet Mall and Hennepin Avenue, because they were no longer financially viable and didn’t fit into the YWCA’s shift away from health and fitness.

The buildings were listed for sale this month, and YWCA officials say they hope to reach tentative purchase agreements for both by the end of the year.

“It could be used for more community wellness,” said Angela Haeg of Minneapolis, a longtime YWCA member and one of several people who are urging local elected leaders to buy the buildings. “A lot of people don’t have access to fitness centers or a pool.”

CEO Shelley Carthen Watson, who has led the YWCA Minneapolis since 2021, said all proposals are being considered. A number of potential buyers — from businesses and investors to other nonprofits — have toured the buildings, she said. She declined to say how many offers they’ve received.

“I think everything is on the table,” she said. “We’re not prioritizing a certain type of buyer at all.”

Other cities have stepped up to buy fitness centers. In the west metro, Minnetonka bought the Marsh wellness center this year for nearly $4.3 million after the YMCA of the North shut it down as part of a broader series of Y fitness center closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the north metro, Lino Lakes last year reopened the city’s shuttered YMCA.

But Minneapolis can’t afford to buy the YWCA’s fitness centers, said Zach Schultz, a spokesman for Council Member Lisa Goodman whose ward includes Uptown and downtown.

Minneapolis Park Board Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer, whose district also encompasses downtown and Uptown, said that while the facilities are an important community asset — especially for seniors — buying and maintaining them would be feasible for the Park Board only if it partnered with another entity to share the costs.

“I don’t think this is something the Park Board could take on by itself,” said Shaffer, who canceled her YWCA Uptown membership following the closure announcement. “We all love the idea of more public places … but it all comes down to funding.”

Park Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers said the board has had limited conversations about the YWCA properties. Hennepin County spokeswoman Carolyn Marinan said she’s not aware of any formal discussions about buying the buildings.

No listing price has been disclosed for the buildings, and their property values aren’t public information because the YWCA is tax-exempt. But the YWCA likely will make millions of dollars on the sales.

Shifting focus

The YWCA’s downtown fitness center, a 120,000 square-foot facility that houses administrative offices, opened in 1976 and replaced a 1929 building. The 80,000 square-foot Uptown YWCA opened in 1987.

“It’s really hard to see it go,” Carthen Watson said. “Our facilities are more than buildings, more than even just gyms. They’re a place of really deep personal meaning to a lot of people.”

The listing by Colliers, a commercial real estate firm, calls the downtown property well-positioned for a headquarters office or infill redevelopment, while the Uptown property could be redeveloped.

When the fitness centers close in two weeks, the YWCA will shutter the Uptown building, drain the pool and sell most of the fitness equipment. The downtown building will remain open with its child care center until it’s sold.

The YWCA Midtown fitness center, the largest and newest of its facilities, will become a community hub with new programs, such as senior resources, a health clinic and possibly free tax help, Carthen Watson said.

The YWCA also will focus on its other programs, including five child care centers, six youth programs and five racial justice programs.

“One of the things that we have always done is that we have pivoted to meet the needs of the community at that time, so that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

Crime issues in Uptown and downtown weren’t a factor in the closures, Carthen Watson said. Instead, she said, the pandemic has challenged the fitness industry, leading YWCAs across the country to move away from the “swim and gym model.”

The YWCA Minneapolis’ fitness programs brought in a quarter of the YWCA’s revenue but accounted for 35% of its expenses, according to the YWCA. Memberships declined from 7,200 in 2019 to about 3,000 — a drop of nearly 60%.

Last year, the YWCA Minneapolis, which has an $18 million annual budget, recorded a $2 million deficit, its largest shortfall in recent years, according to tax forms. The nonprofit listed $22.7 million in total building and land assets on its 2022 federal taxes.

Membership declines, staffing shortages and rising expenses all worsened during the pandemic. The YWCA is laying off 52 employees in conjunction with the closures, about 17% of its workforce, though that’s fewer than the 85 layoffs initially announced.

Swim program scramble

The closures have left more than 300 adult and youth swimmers in the YWCA’s Otters and Masters swim teams scrambling to find new swimming clubs. A group of Otters moved to South High School; Haeg, a Masters swimmer, and part of her team relocated to Southwest High School’s pool under Minneapolis Community Education.

Haeg now uses her employer’s gym. Boutique gyms near her home lack the diversity that the YWCA cultivated, she said. She hopes the Uptown gym can stay accessible, especially to low-income residents of color.

“It was a real shock because I didn’t think there was a crisis going on at all,” said Haeg, who taught and coached at the YWCA years ago. “It’s just a loss of community, and most of the swimmers are women. If their mission is to empower women, it’s a big gutting of that mission statement.”

Noel Hemphill of Minneapolis lost her part-time swimming coach job before landing at the Southwest High program. For her, the YWCA was more than a side gig; her parents met at the downtown pool, and she learned to swim as a kid at the Uptown pool.

“I pretty much grew up there. For the community, it’s a real loss,” she said, adding that she hopes the Park Board can buy the YWCA Uptown like it did the Phillips Aquatics Center several years ago. “This was a poor choice and this was short-sighted.”

Denise Fahl of Minneapolis, a longtime YWCA member, contacted local officials in hopes the YWCA will seriously consider selling to a public owner.

“They could continue [their mission] by not just selling to the highest bidder, but thinking about the community,” Fahl said. “We have a lot of parks, but we don’t have a lot of community centers.”

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