March 15, 2009 in City

3 community centers to serve people of all ages

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: Spokane’s new Ys
Kathy Plonka photo

Maj. John Chamness of The Salvation Army stands near a climbing tower at the Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene on Jan. 16.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

A new community center is always a hit. Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are about to score a grand slam.

Three nonprofit organizations with deep local roots are finishing three landmark developments that combine fitness, recreation, education and support services. The first two open in May, the third in July.

The YMCA and YWCA in Spokane teamed up to build two new community centers, one near downtown and one on the North Side. In Coeur d’Alene, The Salvation Army is finishing the Kroc Center, one of dozens of community centers funded by a fast-food fortune.

Together, the three projects total $77 million and span a quarter-million square feet. They will serve tens of thousands of residents – infants through seniors – in Spokane and Kootenai counties.

And there will be a loud bang for all those bucks: eight indoor pools, spas, gymnasiums, exercise rooms, a climbing wall, an indoor walking-running track, teen centers, recording studios, classrooms, child care centers and playgrounds.

Two of the community centers – the North Y just off the Newport Highway and the Kroc Center near Coeur d’Alene’s Ramsey Park – will reach populations not served by anything similar.

“Overall I think they’re probably the most exciting social-benefit facilities that Spokane has seen in decades, and it’s a great way to start building community investment for the next century, really,” said Monica Walters, former executive director of the YWCA in Spokane.

And the timing couldn’t be better, project developers say. The recession has left more families in need of affordable access to fitness, recreation and other programs to improve their lives. The YMCA, YWCA and Salvation Army want people of all means to be able to use the centers and will offer membership discounts and scholarships for low-income residents.

“We realize people are hurting out there, and I think we’re one of the responders,” said Rig Riggins, YMCA president and CEO.

“We’re one of the (places) that’s going to hold that family together, we feel, during the tough times as well as the good times,” Riggins said.

The centers also will help the Inland Northwest tackle the health risks from being overweight, for adults and children.

“We have a national epidemic in obesity. People are sitting more and not getting out and recreating more,” said Maj. John Chamness, executive director of the Kroc Center.

The array of choices to recreate and exercise there will appeal to just about everyone, Chamness said. “If you find an activity you enjoy, you’re more likely to do it. If you’re more likely to do it, you’re more likely to stay healthy.”

Children in America today may have shorter life expectancies than their parents, according to widely published medical reports in recent years. If left unchecked, rising childhood obesity could shorten life spans as much as five years, researchers say.

“That hit me between the eyes, and it’s really important to understand what is going on there,” Riggins said.

The YMCA is confronting this health crisis with a national program called Activate America, which strives to make exercise enjoyable for kids. “We’ll do it in a fun way to make sure we can reverse this trend, at least locally,” Riggins said.

For mind, body and spirit

Joan Kroc, the widow of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, left $1.6 billion to the Salvation Army to build and run world-class community centers across the country. Coeur d’Alene – a city with no public pools – won a fierce competition to land one, and its center will be the third to open in the West.

“Joan Kroc said she saw these facilities as a doorway to opportunity, and that’s exactly how we see it,” Chamness said.

Kroc’s vision was to inspire and equip potential athletes and artists. Chamness envisions a child discovering the center through its pools or a soccer class, then taking an art or music class. Eventually a mentor might get involved and help the child realize his or her potential.

“When you have that kind of impact on a kid, can you imagine what they’re going to do in life, how successful they’re going to be?” he said.

An international Christian organization, the Salvation Army’s mission is to provide food, clothes, shelter and opportunity to those in need. The Kroc Center is all about opportunity, Chamness said.

“With this center what I hope to do is catch those families or individuals before they get to the bottom of the pit. Let’s catch them when maybe they have an opportunity to do something successful with their life,” he said.

Chamness thinks of the Kroc Center as a place where one can develop the mind, spirit and body. The building blends a fitness and recreation wing – pools, gyms, exercise equipment, fitness classes – with a community-oriented wing where residents can take computer, art and music classes, attend church services and Bible study, enjoy performing arts, or reserve space for a special family occasion.

The triangular “worship theater” of The Salvation Army Corps seats 400. It will double as a venue for theater and concerts. Outside, a large, simple cross faces busy Ramsey Road.

Chamness said he didn’t want it to look like a church. “When people come into this building, I want them to feel like this is just a normal place for them to come, like the mall, like the coffee shop down the street.”

Everyone, regardless of background or religious affiliation, will be welcome at the Kroc Center, he said. People will be free to use the facility without ever setting foot in the chapel.

Built with $34 million from Kroc and $4 million in local donations, the center features high-quality materials and state-of-the-art equipment.

“Most nonprofits get through life on fumes,” Chamness said. “We take generous donations from our community and we do incredible things with it. Typically we don’t want to spend a lot of money on buildings; we’d rather spend money on people.”

But Kroc instructed that her money be used to create world-class facilities. So the Kroc Center includes stainless steel Myrtha pools, built in Italy; white pine finishing and ample use of Montana fieldstone; a lodge-like lobby and lounge with a soaring rock fireplace; high-definition cameras in the recording studio; Wii fitness consoles in the game room; 17 changing cabanas for the pools; and climbing pinnacles 25 and 29 feet tall, joined by an arch.

Another $34 million from Kroc and $2.5 million in fundraising has gone into an endowment to help operate the center and subsidize membership rates.

“We kind of look at this as kind of what (Andrew) Carnegie did with libraries,” Chamness said. “Carnegie was building libraries across the nation, and look at what libraries did for our society, our culture.”

In all the right places

The opening of the Central Y and North Y in Spokane fulfills a goal to bring modern facilities to more people served by the YMCA and YWCA. They follow the opening in 2000 of the popular YMCA in Spokane Valley.

“We deliberately have placed these facilities within communities that can become a hub or center for the rest of that area,” Riggins said.

The organizations anticipate serving 70,000 people among all three Ys. That is roughly one in six county residents.

“We really think that we have a niche of being able to serve the entire family, from infants to seniors, and very credibly at all age groups,” Riggins said.

The Central Y is in a legislative district where 45 percent of households live on annual incomes under $25,000. For the North Y, half the families living within a five-minute drive earn less than $35,000 a year, according to U.S. census data.

“So I think we’re in the right places,” said Cynthia Benzel, chair-elect of the YWCA board.

The Ys are about encouraging a healthy lifestyle, with aquatics signature pieces in each building. The North Y has a lap pool, recreation pool, spa and “lazy river” for floating fun. The Central Y has a lap pool, warm-water therapy pool and splash pad.

“It’s a great place for families to gather and for kids to gain their self-confidence,” Riggins said. “Teaching kids to learn to swim is really going to be an important element.”

Planners also sought to reach out to teens with spaces they can claim as their own. The new buildings have teen centers with pool tables, video games, sound recording studios, computer labs and lounges for hanging out with friends.

Youth-oriented activities will include singing, poetry readings, public speaking, film clubs and, on teen nights, band performances, dances and use of all recreational facilities.

The three Ys hope to reach 10,000 teens countywide.

“A lot of times people are pretty good at working with grade-school kids, and then they kind of forget about the teenagers, and then it kind of goes into adults,” Riggins said. “So we’re really trying to make a mark and be the place for teens to participate.”

Working parents will find a spacious day care center at the Central Y. Up to 200 infants, toddlers and preschoolers at a time will be attended to in classrooms designed for the different ages.

The new buildings replace the well-worn YMCA in Riverfront Park and, just across the Spokane River, the equally tattered YWCA, housed partly in an old brewery warehouse.

The YWCA, active in Spokane for 105 years, will have a significant presence at the Central Y and a small outreach at the North Y. The organization’s focus is on ending domestic violence, eliminating racism and empowering women, and the new spaces will bring a greater sense of dignity and pride to the work, Walters said.

“We’re working with homeless children, we’re working with disadvantaged families, we’re working with women who have been through a lot of trauma,” she said. “And to come into a place that’s welcoming and warm and beautiful and provides them some creature comforts as well as holding their head up high because they’re walking into a place where the community recognizes this is a neat place, that makes a big difference.”

For both the YMCA and YWCA, moving in together opens doors for sharing what each offers its clientele.

“What this collaboration does for us is lets us focus on those things that we think we do really well while at the same time complementing and cooperating with the YMCA on those things they do really well,” Walters said.

A YMCA member may want to mentor a young mother seeking help through the YWCA or donate nice clothes to Sister’s Closet, the working women’s wardrobe the YWCA operates. And a woman fleeing domestic violence who needs a safe place for her children after school, or who seeks the legal advocacy of the YWCA, also may want her child to learn to swim at the YMCA pool.

“And she might want to take a yoga class to help with her own physical health and stress relief,” Walters said. “So she walks in the same door but takes advantage of both services like the YMCA family does.”

The public likely will come to think of each new center simply as the Y, with little distinction between the two organizations, which will maintain separate budgets, staffs and boards.

“Pretty soon it’s going to be pretty fuzzy where the lines are, and that’s by design,” Riggins said.

“We want to think of this as Spokane’s place,” Walters said. “The boards were real clear that we didn’t want it to be a place where the haves go on one side and the have-nots go on the other side, but it’s a place for everybody.”

Contact Scott Maben at (509) 459-5528 or scottm@spokesman.com.


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