Springfield’s Downtown YMCA to close at end of March after 110 years of service

Published: Mar. 3, 2023 at 6:50 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A long chapter in the history of Springfield’s downtown area is about to come to an end.

The Ozarks Regional YMCA has been in the Queen City since 1888 and at its current downtown location for 110 years.

But at the end of March, the facility will be closing its doors for the last time.

The current location of the Ward Downtown YMCA opened in 1913 after a previous YMCA building burned down in 1911.

Since that time thousands of people over the past century have come there to enjoy family fun, improve their health and find neighbors who welcomed them as newcomers to the community.

“Generations grew up learning how to swim there, play basketball and racquetball or take cycling classes,” said Downtown Springfield Association Executive Director Rusty Worley. “So it will hold a soft spot in people’s hearts for a long time to come.”

That’s why it wasn’t an easy decision for YMCA officials to come to the decision to close the downtown location. But the problems, from the high cost of maintaining the old structure to declining membership, have been going on for a while.

“Really the point of no return was going into a new budget year,” explained Kathryn Custer, the CEO of Ozarks Regional YMCA. “We have been talking about the future of the downtown ‘Y’ for two years as far as looking at potential partnerships and ways for new revitalization. We just kept hitting dead ends. So as we looked at setting the budget for this year, it was unanimous that it’s time. It’s been a wonderful journey with a rich history. But the building itself has become very expensive to upkeep. And during COVID people learned that they really can work-out from home without having a facility to go to. As the area has grown there are more options for people and we have this old, aging building that’s just expensive to upkeep. It just no longer makes sense to continue to operate.”

“We understand that times have changed,” added Worley. “There’s a lot more competition for health and wellness than there was years ago. In all the new residential developments there’s fitness equipment and universities have more health and fitness opportunities that are built into student fees. In the heyday of the Downtown YMCA, there was a greater concentration of attorneys and other professionals working in the downtown area. So a lot of factors have contributed to this.”

Jake Wilcox is among the less than 500 members that remain at the Downtown YMCA.

“I had kind of an emotionally-charged reaction to it because I know a lot of the employees and members who have been there 20-30 years,” he said. “So it’s really kind of a bummer to hear they’re closing down.”

Wilcox said he is not concerned about finding another place to work out, but he is going to miss the Downtown YMCA’s historic design of brick with stone and terracotta trimmings.

“It’s beautiful with great views of downtown all throughout it,” he said of the four-story structure. “I just hope it doesn’t get turned into something that doesn’t preserve its beauty. There is a community of us younger people who still enjoy the historic things in life. Things that were built to last and this has lasted 100 years.”

The good news is that since the building is on the local historic register as a historical site, any redevelopment to the exterior of the building would have to be approved by the city’s Landmarks Board.

As for the current members and at least some of the 30 part-time employees, they’ll get opportunities to move to the southside Pat Jones YMCA.

Meanwhile, on March 27 the Downtown YMCA building will go on the auction block with the starting bid of $750,000.

And Custer says the Ozarks Regional YMCA will still be on the lookout for another location for the Ward branch since the southside Y will be their only Springfield site.

“We have several options we’re looking at right now including a smaller location where we could have classrooms or a community area,” she explained. “And we’re also looking at updates at our Pat Jones location because it continues to grow. So yes, we’re not ready to say what we will be doing but we are looking at several different things. We know it’s a heart thing and it’s very nostalgic. So that’s why one of our goals would be to find a different way we could keep this small community together that loves this area and the people who come here. It’s not just a business decision. We are a ‘people’ organization and we don’t want to forget that.”

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