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Potential for YMCA in Watauga Discussed Tuesday

By Paul T. Choate

Scott St. Clair, president of High Country Recreation, giving introductory remarks at the Tuesday evening meeting. Photo by Paul T. Choate

Oct. 3, 2012. On Tuesday evening High Country Recreation hosted a meeting at the Watauga Medical Center auditorium to discuss the possibility of bring a YMCA to Watauga. More than 50 people, including Boone town officials, turned out for the event.

Scott St. Clair, president of High Country Recreation, an organization incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the last year, opened the meeting saying its purpose was give community members an overview of what it takes to bring a YMCA into a new location.

St. Clair said during a recent board meeting of High Country Recreation, the need for a facility such as the YMCA was brought up.

“Obviously we didn’t pull that out of thin air,” St. Clair said. “If you look at the last two 10-year plans from the Parks and Recreation Department, some sort of indoor recreation facility has been identified as a need in our community.”

Following St. Clair’s remarks, Bob Conklin, CEO of the Catawba Valley YMCA, was introduced and gave a presentation on the feasibility of a YMCA in Watauga.

“I think it is very doable, but it’s going to take commitment, passion and philanthropy from the community to support it,” Conklin recently told High Country Press. He told attendees of the meeting that he believed there was a strong potential for a local YMCA.

In prior years, YMCAs were all independent operations. However, in recent years a new national YMCA, “Y-USA,” has set up a model where facilities in smaller communities are connected to a network of Ys. Conklin said if Watauga received a YMCA it would be part of the Catawba Valley YMCA network, which considered the Y in Hickory their “flagship Y.”

Bob Conklin, CEO of the Catawba Valley YMCA, talks about what it would take to bring a YMCA to Watauga. Photo by Paul T. Choate

There are still some independent Ys that remain, such as the Williams YMCA in Linville, but Conklin said those independent facilities often struggle greatly due to lack of expertise and financial resources that a network can provide.

Conklin said a typical YMCA facility that would potentially be constructed in Watauga would be about 35,000 square feet and would consist of gym, pool, childcare area, and perhaps outdoor recreation fields on the lot.

Asked by a member of the audience if the two-acre parcel set aside for a recreation facility at Watauga High School would be a good location for a YMCA, Conklin replied, “It’s not ideal.” He added that at least five or six acres would probably be needed.

As Conklin was fielding questions regarding potential locations, Brian Lowe, executive director of the Hope Pregnancy Resource Center and advocate for a Watauga YMCA, jumped in. 

“Any discussion on land is premature,” Lowe said. “We need to come to a consensus as a community how we want to meet this identified need over the last 20 years before we start discussing land. … We don’t need to start off with stuff that is going to create conflict right off. We need to start with facilitating the discussion.”

So what will it take?

Conklin said the ideal YMCA for Watauga County would cost approximately $6 million to $7 million. The first $1 million would need to be raised by the community or from donors in order to cover operating expenses for the facility during the first three years after opening. During that time, the community would need to come up with the other $5 million to $6 million.

According to Conklin, about 60 percent of a YMCA’s expenses come from paying salaries, benefits and training. He stressed that once a Y is fully open and operational, it is very much member-funded. In Catawba Valley, membership is usually $40 per month per person or $60 per month for families. However, Conklin said they have a “very liberal financial aid policy” to help lower-income individuals be able to join.

Asked if arguably Watauga County’s biggest financial player, Appalachian State University, had been reached out to, St. Clair said that he had reached out to several members of ASU, but that talks regarding the university possibly providing financial assistance for a Y was premature.

Conklin also added that in some locations, a YMCA “store front” gym-style facility was opened initially to build community interest prior to the actual construction of a full Y.

Lowe said there is a need for a public/private/nonprofit partnership in order to raise the funds needed.

“At the end of the day there is 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 get accomplished.”

About the Y as it relates to Watauga

28 percent of YMCA membership – the largest percentage of membership – comes from the 30-54 age range. Given that Watauga County’s median age range is 29.9, this comes in on the lower end of whom they typically expect as members. Ages 18-29 only make up 15 percent of YMCA membership.

As far as the impact on the community regarding job creation, Conklin said a typical Y would create approximately 70 to 80 part-time (20 hours per week or less) positions along with about five full-time salaried positions and an executive director. He said the salaried positions would pay about $30,000 to $40,000 per year with the executive director making as much as double that.

Gretchen Piasecny, a private wellness coach from Blowing Rock and former employee of the Williams YMCA, said she believed there was great need for a YMCA facility in Watauga, but added that community interest is a must. She said during her time with the Williams YMCA, things were sometimes difficult due to financial issues.

Piasecny also praised the Paul H. Broyhill Wellness Center in Boone for all they provide, but said the center “cannot provide what we need as a community.”

‘So where do we go from here?’

That was the final question, addressed to St. Clair, prior to adjourning the meeting.

St. Clair said that the immediate future would be composed of continued discussion.

“What we’re looking for is people’s interest,” he said. “What it’s going to take to really look at this is a solid group, a wide, diverse base, to look at this and say, ‘Can we move forward?’”

To download the full PowerPoint presentation from last night’s meeting, click here