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Y in Watauga ‘Critically Important to the Community;’ Presentation Tomorrow to Discuss Prospect, Feasibility

By Paul T. Choate

Oct. 1, 2012. For about two decades the prospect of a YMCA in Watauga County has wavered in and out of discussion. Tomorrow evening the possibility will again be brought up when Bob Conklin, president and CEO of the Catawba Valley YMCA, speaks at an informational meeting about what it takes to bring a YMCA to a community.

The presentation will take place at 5:30 p.m. in the Watauga Medical Center auditorium in Boone.

“The community members in the Boone area have come to the YMCAs now for about 20 years, often inquiring about a YMCA up in Boone,” said Conklin. “I’ve got a file that goes back three CEOs here – dating back to the early 90s – where there’s always been an interest [in bringing a YMCA to Boone].”

Brian Lowe, executive director of the Hope Pregnancy Resource Center and advocate for a Watauga YMCA, spoke at the Sept. 20 Town Council meeting to present information about the YMCA initiative. He also askined for a special meeting of the Town Council to be called to coincide with the YMCA initiative presentation.

The Boone Town Council voted to approve a special meeting to be held at the auditorium in conjunction with the presentation at 5:30 p.m. Mayor Loretta Clawson, along with Councilman Rennie Brantz and Councilwoman Lynne Mason, are confirmed to attend the meeting. The council also agreed to advertise the special meeting to the public.

“The goal is really just to see if we can come together and look at the needs of the community and see if the YMCA would be a viable solution to those needs. In order to do that it’s going to have to be a community effort,” said Lowe. “We wanted to make sure that we tried to get at least the people that we thought were critical to seeing this accomplished attend the meeting, so we wanted to appeal to them.”

In addition to community leaders, any interested community members are welcome to attend the presentation. 

Scott St. Clair, president of High Country Recreation, an organization incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the last year, said he feels that a YMCA coming to Watauga County has been in the long-range plans for many years.

“I think it is critically important to the community to have some sort of indoor recreational facility,” said St. Clair. “We wanted to further the conversation along and have the [Catawba Valley] YMCA come and present what the options would look like for a YMCA to be in our community.”

According to Conklin, although there has been interest in Watauga for several years, funding has come up as an issue. He said he anticipates that community leader surveys and feasibility studies would need to be done as part of the planning process.

A YMCA needs at least 25,000 residents within a 12-mile radius. Additionally, Conklin estimated that a full-scale YMCA would cost upwards of $6 million to $7 million.

“We never really get through those initial discussions because, for some reason, the concept is that the YMCA is a franchise and you can just plop one down anywhere. But it really has to be a grassroots community effort to bring a YMCA to a community,” said Conklin. “A lot of work has to be done and the money has to come from that community.”

St. Clair said he hopes to be able to connect with other local groups who focus on recreation to raise awareness about the benefits of bringing a YMCA to Watauga.

“We did not form ourselves to be a YMCA organizing group. We’re there to promote recreation in all its various forms,” said St. Clair. “But we do feel like this is an important issue and we wanted to be a part of exploring what all the options are for our community.”

Conklin is optimistic about Watuaga’s chances of getting a YMCA in the future.

“I think it is very doable, but it’s going to take commitment, passion and philanthropy from the community to support it,” he said. “We’re excited. We would love to be a part of the birthing of a new YMCA. … We would love to assist in any way that we can.”

So if the interest and funding were there, where exactly would the YMCA be? St. Clair, speaking only from personal opinion, proposed three locations. He suggested perhaps at Watauga High School (where a portion of the property was set aside for a recreational facility during development), the old Watauga High School site, or somewhere in the Brookshire community near Brookshire Park.

“Those would be three places that come to the top of my head – as a personal opinion – that might be places where it could be located,” he said.

Despite the cost involved to bring a YMCA to a community, neighboring Avery County has enjoyed the benefits of having one since the Williams YMCA in Linville opened in April 2007.

Trey Oakley, executive director of the Williams YMCA, noted several benefits associated with the YMCA that Avery residents enjoy. He said there are programs specifically designed to help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, he said there were several beneficial programs for kids, including the Splash program that teaches all pre-K and second grade students in Avery County how to swim. The Splash program is privately funded and comes at no cost to Avery County residents or the school system.

Oakley said Dr. Charles Baker, a family practice physician in Avery County for four decades, “said it best when he said the YMCA is the best thing that has happened to Avery County since he has been here.”

“The sky is the limit as far as to what a YMCA can mean to a community,” said Oakley.