YMCA plans on moving to Civic Athletic Complex after 75 years at downtown location

A street view of the Whatcom Family YMCA at 1256 N State St. // Photo by Nick Baca

By Nick Baca

Whether it be swimming, health and wellness or after school programs, the YMCA, a nonprofit organization, has worked with and supported communities around the country. The Whatcom Family YMCA, which has been located at the corner of N State and E Holly since 1942, according to their website, is on the move. 

The YMCA has partnered with the City of Bellingham to negotiate a deal to move from their downtown location and construct a new 50,000-square-foot facility at the Civic Athletic Complex which will incorporate the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, said the CEO of Whatcom Family YMCA, Bill Ziels.

Ziels presented an update on a joint-study between the city and the YMCA during the Bellingham City Council meeting on July 15.  

We entered into an agreement to research the feasibility of a relocation and that process identified the Civic Athletic Complex as the most feasible location for a new YMCA facility in Whatcom County,” Melissa Bianconi, administrative coordinator for Bellingham Parks and Recreation, said.

Out of five possible locations that were scouted by a third party market research company from New York, “The Civic Athletic Complex was determined to deliver a social gathering hub for our community where all populations can improve their quality of life, Ziels said.

 The study first began in October of 2018 and currently the city and the YMCA are progressing toward the next phase of project planning, Bianconi said.

Ziels said that he hopes the YMCA and the city will come to a deal in the fall and start the project soon after. According to the Ziels, the $25 million proposed plan includes a community kitchen, gymnasium, teaching area, an intergenerational center, two to three multipurpose rooms and a kids adventure center. Additionally, the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center will remain open to the public and will be expanding with main facility to include a family pool area and four additional swimming lanes.

The current YMCA location is 115 years old, it is inefficient to operate and isn’t financially stable in its current state, Ziels said. He also mentioned that the reliance on stairs throughout the building adversely affects people with limited mobility and families with young children.

“The Y wants to support our community well into the future,” Ziels said. “Without significant renovation and additional parking which comes at an exorbitant price, our current location is not in a position to operate in a way that we think would best serve Bellingham.” 

Giving the YMCA a new home has benefits for the community as well as the city, Ziels continued. A portion of the original study done by the market research team was focused on analyzing costs of the aquatic center. 

“It will cost $3.2 million to keep Arne Hanna running at a set standard for the next 20 years, as well as an estimated $1.2 million in subsidies in 2020,” Ziels said.  “By allowing the YMCA to oversee the new aquatic center it gives the city the possibility to have less reliance on the city’s general fund.”

Ziels expects an increase of roughly 3,000 members if things are to go as planned. 

“We want to eliminate the disparities in health based on race and income levels, the new site is positioned to do this,” Ziels said. 

The Civic Athletic Complex plan addresses all including vulnerable and underserved populations of any age or demographic, and free of discrimination of any kind, Ziels said. 

“A big concern is how public the existing facilities will be, including the aquatic center. This proposal allows greater accessibility which makes it a public benefit, that’s why I am in support of it,” Michael Lilliquist, a Bellingham City Council Member, said. 

“We [the City of Bellingham] share many of the same goals when it comes to providing healthy opportunities for our community,” Leslie Bryson, director of the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, said. 

According to Ziels, both the city and the YMCA are looking for partnerships to help with these goals..

The proposed site is adjacent to Carl Cozier Elementary School which is recommended for renovation in the coming years, according to the Facilities Planning Task Force for Bellingham School District

“The Bellingham School District has a stake in any type of wellness or aquatic development in the City,” Bianconi said. 

Ziels said this is ideal due to possible construction by both parties scheduled so close together, he also said that the YMCA has reached out to Peace Health to see if they would like a location in the new facility and offer health services.

According to Ziels, the YMCA plans to fund most of the project with the down payment made when they sell the current building while other sources of funding are still in the works. This raises the question of what will become of the historic YMCA building?

“We have committed to working with the city to explore how the existing building can be redeveloped to meet the needs of downtown,” Ziels said. “It’s bittersweet though, this building has served us and the community extremely well over the years.”

One obstacle regarding the move is relocating the Early Learning Center, one of many programs the YMCA offers. 

“The Y wants to keep one of these centers downtown as it is really useful for those who work and live in the area,” Ziels said. 

The Early Learning Center currently has a two-year waiting list so this is a big priority, Ziels said, and he assures that they are working hard to find a new location.

One thing for the public to consider is the chance that plans could fall through. If this were to happen, the YMCA would be closed for at least a year to perform renovations on the existing building, Ziels said. 

“The community response has been extremely positive. Even those who are skeptical understand the benefits after explaining the reasoning,” Ziels said. “They say, ‘OK, I get it, this is a good thing.’ Because of things like this we are excited for the coming years.”

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