When Dave Harding was hired as director of the Whatcom Family YMCA, there was talk of moving the Y from downtown to the outskirts of Bellingham, in part because it occupied, in the words of a longtime board member, an "old, dilapidated, crummy-looking building."
That was 25 years ago.
Today, the YMCA is still downtown, but the building has been remodeled inside and out. There are more amenities, including a climbing wall; more programs, including Y-run child care at numerous sites in the county; and there's room for growth, because the Y has purchased several nearby buildings and a parking lot.
After a busy quarter century, Harding, now CEO and executive director, plans to retire at the end of June.
"He has been an excellent director," said Margaret Curtis, YMCA board president. "Everything has grown and solidified and expanded."
DECADES OF CHANGE
Harding, 60, grew up in Southern California, where his grandparents bought him a YMCA membership when he was 8. His folks were divorced and his father wasn't around, so Y activities helped to fill the void.
"It was my Saturdays," Harding said.
He went on to earn a college degree in physical education and worked for the YMCA in the Los Angeles area. He and his wife, Mary, wanted to find a new place to raise their two sons but weren't sure they would stay a long time in the Northwest, which was new territory to them.
But after their visit for his job interview in Bellingham, his wife told him, "I don't know where you're going to live, but I'm going to live up there."
"So it's a good thing I got the job," he said.
In the early '90s, the Y contemplated leaving downtown. However, many members lived within a few miles of the downtown building, the prospect of raising millions of dollars for a move was uncertain, and the option of fixing the building made better financial sense, Harding said.
The four-story structure at East Holly and North State streets opened in 1907 as the Exchange Building, a home to doctors, lawyers and other tenants. In the 1920s, a new owner turned it into a hotel. The Y bought the bankrupt hotel in the 1940s and relocated from its earlier home at 311 E. Holly.
Even though the building needed lots of work, the YMCA decided two decades ago to stay put.
"We were the first significant entity to commit to downtown," Harding said.
Physical changes to the building followed. In 1992, gold-colored aluminum mesh that covered the top three floors was removed, as were rock panels on the first floor. Underneath, the original brick was in good shape.
A new cornice followed, along with a metal-and-glass awning, a new entryway and the towering climbing wall inside an atrium at the south end of the building.
Inside, locker rooms were improved, and walls were removed to provide flexible space for programs and classes.
The Y also bought the adjacent Fine Arts building on Holly, the former funeral home at Holly and Forest streets, a fourplex south of the funeral home, the parking lot behind the funeral home, and the commercial laundry building that's now home to the climbing wall.
Those properties ensure the YMCA will have room to grow. For now, the former funeral home houses a child-care center run by the Y.
During Harding's tenure, the Y also assumed management of the Lynden YMCA, which had been independent; and now runs as a YMCA satellite a former racquetball business it leases in Ferndale.
Inside the downtown building, Harding said his focus has been to improve and expand classes, camps and other activities for families, teens and youths, with revenue from the programs supporting capital improvements.
For many people, when they think of the Y they think of its swimming pool, gym and exercise equipment. But much more is going on.
Fitness programs generate only about a third of the Y's income, Harding said. A majority of revenue comes from child care, and the balance comes from other youth programs.
Plus, a new drop-in center for teens is expected to open soon.
"We don't think of ourselves as an athletic club." Harding said.
That's apparent when you consider that the Y provides 1,200 passes for free showers every month for needy people, works with young offenders doing community service, and provides more than $300,000 a year in free or discounted services to low-income people.
For his part, Harding said he and his wife look forward to spending time aboard their 34-foot sailboat, traveling, and skiing next winter. Beyond that, "The rest has to be defined," he said.
Board members, with help from the national YMCA organization, have begun their search for a new director. Curtis, the board president, said the position should appeal to applicants, in part because the Y has been well-run under Harding and there's a core of capable, long-term employees.
"That doesn't happen unless you have a great CEO," Curtis said. "Everybody recognizes the shoes we need to fill. ... We also know that we can't look backward."
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.