By CHRIS MORRIS
NEW ALBANY —
When Joe LaRocca and Mike Ricke met in 1999 to discuss the possibility of building a YMCA in New Albany, few probably thought it was possible.
Nothing new, at the time, was happening in the downtown area, so building a YMCA where the old Double Seven tire store, Schmitt Furniture warehouse and Retailer Supply sat was like winning the lottery. It probably wasn’t going to happen.
But the idea gained momentum and Ricke was given the task to chair a capital campaign to help raise funds to construct the facility. Then-Mayor Regina Overton supported the plan and moved it forward, Caesars Casino, now Horseshoe Southern Indiana, pledged $20 million, and the capital campaign raised another $7.5 million.
Everything was in place — all the YMCA needed was for the city council and county government to approve the plan and commit a yearly payment of $137,000 for 20 years. That’s all that was left.
But that vote nearly ended the dream. Only by the slimmest margins, 5-4, did the city council approve the deal paving the way for the YMCA to be built.
“It was an idea from the outside. No one on the city council thought of it and no one in the county thought of it,” Ricke said. “They all started playing politics with it. It was a huge political battle.”
Construction began in 2006 at the corner of State and Main streets and Nov. 15, 2008, the Floyd County Branch of the YMCA of Southern Indiana opened its doors. But according to most, it did more than that. It opened opportunities in the downtown area that had not been seen in decades.
Since the YMCA opened, downtown New Albany has seen an explosion of new restaurants and businesses. The facility draws an average of 1,000 people a day to its location. Those are people who probably didn’t venture downtown before the YMCA was constructed.
“Mayor [Jeff] Gahan told me one time the Y instilled confidence in the downtown,” said LaRocca, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Southern Indiana. “I think that is what it was. It was a catalyst. By the Y coming here, it said to the small business person it’s OK to be downtown. Now New Albany has created a little niche for itself.”
On Friday, Nov. 15, the exact day of its opening five years ago, the YMCA will hold a celebration throughout the day to thank its members for their loyalty.
“Thankfully common sense won over,” Ricke said of the close city council vote to approve the construction and funding formula. “They [Caesars] were within an inch of pulling their $20 million pledge because of the political nonsense that was going on.
“I guess I was naive. I was shocked that people would be against something that would benefit everyone, and who would say no to a $20 million gift?”
However, Gahan said he doesn’t think it was a political struggle when the council considered the plan. He said it was the size and scope of the project that made people uneasy.
“It was very new to people. There were a lot of large numbers involved and a long-term commitment which made people nervous,” said Gahan, who was on the city council at the time and was one of the five who voted in favor of the project. “I think most people now are happy with the way it turned out. It was a great step for New Albany and a great opportunity for the YMCA.”
The majority of city leaders and business owners agree with Gahan that the YMCA has been nothing but a positive for the city, county and Southern Indiana.
“There was a group of us who knew this would be a shot in the arm for the downtown. It’s proven to be even bigger than that,” said city Councilman Bob Caesar, owner of J.O. Endris Jewelers along Pearl Street. “It has brought a tremendous amount of people to the downtown area. It’s been a tremendous asset.”
Schmitt Furniture President Louis Schmitt is part of that group. Schmitt and the YMCA both take up a corner of Main and State streets, and he said he couldn’t have a better neighbor.
“The Y is the seed that started the new growth of the city,” he said. “This business has felt an impact from it. When the Y came in they were like a breath of fresh air to the downtown. It gave individuals willing to invest confidence that people would be coming downtown regularly. Those people need places to eat, places to shop.”
Schmitt said his family was more than willing to sell its warehouse to make room for the YMCA. He said his new warehouse is more efficient.
“Our family saw it as a positive. We wanted to help make it happen,” he said. “It was a good economic decision for everyone.”
It was also a great economic decision for New Albany, Gahan said.
“I always said it was the perfect project for downtown New Albany,” the mayor said. “When it came together, membership sales were brisk, the parking lot was full and everyone in New Albany had a sense of confidence. It energized others.”
LAROCCA: YMCA MORE THAN A GYM
The YMCA receives funding from several avenues. About 63 percent of the budget comes from membership dues. Other funds are raised through youth sports programs and camps, grants and fundraising, which provides financial assistance for individuals to attend the YMCA.
Children on free or reduced lunch can get into the YMCA for $3 a day, which is $5 less than the regular guest fee, thanks to the fundraising efforts. Financial assistance is also given to adults, based on their income. LaRocca said about 20 percent of the YMCA members receive some sort of assistance.
There are around 3,600 units — both family and individual memberships — at the Floyd County YMCA. The New Albany facility peaked in 2011 with 4,400 units, and while that number has dropped, LaRocca said the facility is doing a better job retaining members.
LaRocca also said the YMCA is much more than a workout facility offering more through its programming for children and adults.
“There are a lot of other providers of fitness programs out there,” he said. “We don’t see ourselves as a fitness center. We are like a big box; we take in everything. We have staff at all our programs.”
LaRocca, who worked at the Clark County branch for 27 years prior to the New Albany location, said he is pleased with both the Floyd County and Clark County branches and where the two are headed. Combined, the two employ about 400.
“I am pleased with the amount of people we are able to touch on a daily basis,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder where did all those people go before this facility was built. It always amazes me to see people walking the track with oxygen or elderly folks who feel comfortable coming here. Where else would they go if they didn’t have this place?”
LaRocca said the facility’s lap and therapy pool is a draw, as is its proximity to Louisville.
“I don’t think our location could be any better in order for us to serve such a broad range of economic diversity,” he said. “This has been a good spot for us.”
FUTURE OF THE YMCA
LaRocca said he would like to have more programming space at the New Albany facility and larger adult locker rooms, and Ricke said he has plans on his desk for a possible expansion. However, those likely will have to wait a few years.
LaRocca admits fundraising would be a challenge.
“People get excited when you build a new facility, but don’t get quite as excited when you want to expand,” he said. “But I am definitely happy with where we are at right now.”
“The timing is not right yet,” Ricke said of expansion. “When I look back it was just a miracle it was built.”
Schmitt, Caesar and other downtown merchants are glad it was.
“It’s now cool to be downtown,” Schmitt said. “It’s hip.”