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YMCA would like to move out of downtown Bellingham. Here’s why and where it could go

Whatcom Family YMCA offers health and wellness for all ages

Whatcom Family YMCA entered into negotiations in 2019 with the city of Bellingham, Wash., to move from its downtown location to part of the city-owned Civic Athletic Complex that includes the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.
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Whatcom Family YMCA entered into negotiations in 2019 with the city of Bellingham, Wash., to move from its downtown location to part of the city-owned Civic Athletic Complex that includes the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.

The Whatcom Family YMCA would move from downtown into a new space and take over the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center as part of an estimated $25 million project if its negotiations with the city are successful.

That’s according to an update the Bellingham City Council received last week, about 10 months after both sides announced that they were studying the possibility of a new partnership to expand the aquatic center into a new community health and wellness center and headquarters for the YMCA.

They are looking at roughly 6 acres of city owned-land off Lakeway Drive.

Leslie Bryson, director for the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department, and Bill Ziels, CEO/executive director of the Whatcom Family YMCA, provided the update.

The feasibility piece is done and the two sides have started negotiating over the aquatic center and the YMCA’s proposal to move to that area, which is part of the Civic Athletic Complex. The city of Bellingham owns the aquatic center and the complex, which includes Civic Field, the Sportsplex and Joe Martin Stadium.

The area is near Interstate 5 and has the potential for expansion, additional parking and renovation of the existing facility, YMCA officials have said, adding the site was the best location to develop a modern recreational hub for its members and the broader community.

A new or renovated building would allow the YMCA to serve more people and to provide more programs, the nonprofit said in a previous Bellingham Herald story.

The goal is to have a contract before the City Council for its consideration in fall, possibly in November. It would include the YMCA running the aquatic center on behalf of the city, which would continue to own the land and would enter into a long-term lease with the YMCA, Bryson said.

The YMCA would pay for construction, while the city’s contributions to the partnership are part of the negotiations.

Arne Hanna Aquatic Center swim instructor Rhonda Flatz Stouder says drownings are an "epidemic" and swimming is a lifesaving skill that every child should learn.

For its part, the Whatcom Family YMCA proposes to add four lanes to the aquatic center, bringing the total number of swimming lanes up to 12, and adding a family recreation pool.

Then a two-story building would be constructed next to the aquatic center, totaling 53,000 square feet. It would include a gym with four pickleball courts, community kitchen, up to three multi-purpose rooms that the community could use, wellness and fitness studios, family locker rooms, inter-generational center, kids’ adventure center/child watch, and a cushioned indoor track above the gym.

At least 185 parking spaces would be built, Ziels said, adding that he hoped spill-over parking could be handled by the nearby parking lot for Civic that is empty when events aren’t occurring there.

Construction wouldn’t start for two years.

And while an agreement hasn’t been finalized, some council members and Bryson liked the idea of a collaboration.

The project had a “tremendous amount of merit,” Ziels said.

If it moves, the YMCA would leave the downtown that it has called home for 100 years.

The Whatcom Family YMCA provides health, wellness and exercise classes, including for seniors, at its three locations in Ferndale, Lynden and Bellingham.

It also offers child care services to 650 school-age children throughout Whatcom County, as well as an estimated 200 preschoolers.

The organization was founded in Bellingham in 1890.

It moved into its current four-story building at 1256 N. State St. — the former Hotel Henry — in 1942. Before that, the YMCA was in the Odd Fellows Building across the street, where it had been since 1906.

Current amenities at the downtown YMCA building include a swimming pool, climbing wall, gym, weight room, steam rooms, squash and racquetball courts, locker rooms and child care facility.

YMCA building
​The city of Bellingham and the Whatcom Family YMCA are looking at the possibility of expanding the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center into a new community health and wellness center and headquarters for the YMCA, which is currently in downtown Bellingham. City of Bellingham Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Here are other aspects of the proposal and some reasons behind it, as discussed in the council’s Parks and Recreation Committee on Monday, July 15, and in follow-up interviews with The Bellingham Herald:

Built in 1995 at 1114 Potter St., the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center will need $3.2 million in maintenance over the next 20 years.

The city subsidizes the aquatic center. That subsidy is expected to total $1.2 million in 2019, with the same amount for the following year.

People won’t have to become a member of the YMCA to continue using the aquatic center.

The YMCA’s downtown building is 115 years old, hasn’t been seismically retrofitted and is still heated with radiators and boilers, which makes it inefficient and costly to operate. It can be difficult for people with mobility issues to access.

Ziels estimated that the YMCA could serve nearly 40 percent more people with better access and less reliance on stairs.

“People ask why don’t you redevelop your existing site?” Ziels said to the council committee last Monday.

That has been studied, but the work would be so extensive that the downtown building would have to be closed for a year for construction, Ziels said.

“We’re trying to have a solution that doesn’t include us having to cease services for a year,” Ziels said to The Bellingham Herald. “That’s not a good option for us.”

In its current downtown location, the YMCA has 45 parking spaces for about 8,000 members. If it stayed put, Ziels said it would have to consider building a parking structure, which is expensive.

And street parking can be difficult.

“Parking in downtown Bellingham continues to get tightened,” Ziels said.

The YMCA will sell its downtown building, which will be the main part of its down payment for the $25 million project.

City leaders want to make sure the building isn’t sold to someone who will leave it empty.

“What happens with the downtown Y? Does it leave a big hole in our city core?” Mayor Kelli Linville said of her primary concern, adding that Ziels has assured her that wouldn’t be the case.

Linville said she’d like to see workforce housing — affordable housing within a reasonable distance of where people work — in the downtown YMCA building with child care on the bottom floor.

YMCA move.JPG
​Banners hang outside the State Street Whatcom Family YMCA building. Current amenities at the downtown YMCA building include a swimming pool, climbing wall, gym, weight room, steam rooms, squash and racquetball courts, locker rooms and child care facility. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Longtime residents don’t want the aquatic center’s name to change.

“People don’t want to lose the name Arne Hanna and what that history is to our city,” City Council member Pinky Vargas said to Ziels.

Ziels said he hasn’t gotten that far because there’s no agreement with the city yet.

The YMCA provides child care to more than 650 children throughout Whatcom County, including at its building in the downtown where there is a two-year waiting list.

Ziels said it wanted to serve more children so the YMCA was looking for a larger space downtown for a child care center.

He said the project made sense for everyone involved.

It offered the YMCA a way to grow and to gain a more efficient building, Ziels said, while allowing Bellingham to offer parks services with less reliance on the city’s budget.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.
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