Ten Who Cared: Dave Harding led the Whatcom Family YMCA through decades of growth, improvement

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 22, 2013 

10 Who Cared: Dave Harding

Dave Harding, Monday, Dec. 16, 2013 at Zuanich Park in Bellingham.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

When Dave Harding was hired to lead the Whatcom Family YMCA a quarter century ago, the Y was in shaky financial shape and the downtown building was decrepit.

Harding was in his mid-30s then, full of energy and ideas and with a solid California background in YMCA leadership. He figured he could turn the Bellingham Y around within a few years.

It took much longer than he expected, but the organization he departed when he retired last June is in much better shape, with a revamped building, new programs and space to grow.

"I was the beneficiary of good timing," Harding says. "The community was ready to grow into what we created."

Harding credits the staff, board members and an improving economy for the success of the Y during his tenure as executive director and CEO. Such success is never the result of just one person, but Harding was in charge when the Y evolved from a small outfit to a well-rounded community organization.

"We broadened significantly what we were doing," he says.

An early crucial decision was whether to remodel the four-story Y building at East Holly and North State streets, or build elsewhere. The decision to stay was made, in part, because many members lived close to downtown, and fixing the renovating the building was a smarter financial move, Harding has said.

The decision gave a firmer focus to Y plans, and ensured that a major fixture would remain in the city core. Other decisions were crucial, too. For example, Harding says, the Y decided to self-fund many major improvements rather than go into debt.

"It wasn't this big splash," he says. "We continued improving under the radar."

Changes include extensive remodeling inside and out, the installation of an inside climbing wall, and the purchase of several nearby buildings and a parking lot.

The Y also began offering child care at several sites in the county and offered more activities for families teens and youths, expanding its community outreach and finding new sources of revenue as well.

"The community didn't see us an entity that always needed a handout," Harding says.

The Y also strengthened its presence outside of Bellingham during Harding's reign. It assumed management of the Lynden YMCA, which had been independent, and now runs as a Y satellite a former racquetball business it leases in Ferndale.

Not everything went smoothly. The Y operated a gym north on Guide Meridian in the early 1990s, but it didn't last. And in 2012, Lynden voters rejected a bond that would have removed the Delft Square building downtown to house a new Lynden YMCA.

But those failed expansions didn't hurt the core operation downtown in Bellingham. The Y's purchase of several nearby properties during Harding's term - the Fine Arts building on Holly Street, 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 that's now home to the climbing wall - gives the Y room to grow, or, in the alternative, assets the Y could sell to raise money.

"The footprint is there to do something," Harding says. "There's plenty of opportunity for expansion, if that's what they choose to."

But those are issues for Dan Powell, the new CEO, and other Y leaders to wrestle with.

For now, Harding is enjoying himself sailing, running and visiting his sons, one in Portland, Ore., and one in Southern California.

His wife, Mary, runs a gem appraising and jewelry design business in Bellingham. They plan to travel more next year, he says, and take time to decide whether they want to stay in Bellingham or move, perhaps to be closer to their sons.

At age 60, he's still got time and energy to plan for the long-term. He also has time to give their house some of the attention he's given to the Y over the years.

"Catching up on a lot of home projects," Harding says. "My honey-do list is large."

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2291.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for an organization we should salute next year, please email newsroom@bellinghamherald.com.

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