By Max Goodwin
The Red Bridge YMCA will close December 17. As the YMCA of Greater Kansas City looks to sell the property some community leaders hoped the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department could operate the community center.
That doesn’t appear likely due to over $100 million in deferred maintenance at the department. Parks Director Chris Cotten explained the situation in response to a question from Kevin McManus, 6th District Councilman, during a City Council meeting Tuesday about Finance, Governance, and Public Safety.
“I’ve been evaluating the operations of our existing community centers and we have quite a long list of deferred maintenance at those facilities that we’re trying to address,” Cotten said.
“While I am in no way opposed to taking on the operation of another facility, I want to be clear that we don’t have the staffing right now to operate the community centers that we do have open. So, we are literally shuttling staff between two or three different facilities just to have them open.”
“I also want to stress that we do not have the resources right now to open another facility but it’s not something that we’re afraid of doing if we have the proper resources,” Cotten said.
The YMCA of Greater Kansas City announced in a statement sent to members and posted to the organization’s social media November 9 that the Red Bridge Family YMCA on Holmes Road will be permanently closed on December 17.
The statement from the YMCA said facility usage and membership had decreased significantly during the pandemic and had not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“As a result, financial resources are limited, and it’s no longer sustainable to operate the Red Bridge Family YMCA,” the statement said.
The facility opened in 1964 and has been an integral part of the South Kansas City community during its 58 year existence.
Chief Operating Officer of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City Mark Hulet agreed to meet with a select group of community leaders on November 17. The facility has significance for Hulet as well, it’s the location his wife once worked at.
Hulet met with 6th District City Council Members Andrea Bough and Kevin McManus, Jackson County Legislator and South Kansas City resident Dan Tarwater, South Kansas City Alliance President John Sharp, and First Baptist Church Pastor Stephen Jones.
Pastor Stephen Jones hosted the meeting at First Baptist Church on Red Bridge Road and said he expressed disappointment and hope that South Kansas City can fill the gap the YMCA will leave as it closes with a similar community center.
“We were very disappointed that the YMCA made this decision from its central offices without communicating to the wider community the precariousness of the Red Bridge Y’s finances,” Jones said.
Jones said the YMCA’s decision seems to be final. What bothers him most is that there was no time for the community to act based on when it was announced the location would close.
With a little more time, Jones believes the South Kansas City community could have responded with a campaign to increase membership.
Paula Oxeler, Associate Vice President of Communications for the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, said the current membership of the Red Bridge YMCA had decreased to its current 500 members. She said to be sustainable, a YMCA club must have an average of 10 members an hour. There were no statistics available regarding membership numbers in the past compared to now.
“The Red Bridge YMCA has seen a decline in membership over the past 20 years,” Oxler said. “When we look at recent trends post-pandemic, other local Ys are seeing improvements in membership, but the Red Bridge Y is not seeing those trends.”
Donald Tiesenga has been a member of the Red Bridge YMCA for ten years since moving to the area. He and his wife swim at the YMCA about five days each week. They were shocked when they received a YMCA letter in the mail notifying him that the location would be closing.
“The Y has played an important part in our life,” Tiesenga said.
Tiesenga said he would have liked to see more effort from the YMCA of Greater Kansas City to promote membership in the area. Oxler said the YMCA has done digital and broadcast advertising campaigns to gain more membership.
“I’ve never seen anything promoting the Y in this area. It’s almost like they were coasting,” Tiesenga said. “I think there’s a lot they could have done.”
Many accomplished swimmers learned to swim at the Red Bridge YMCA. For two decades it was the site of Rockhurst High School swim practice while the school won 13 state championships during that time.
Notre Dame de Sion’s swim and dive team also practiced there and began its season November 7 as they were notified October 29 of the need to find a new location.
“We had to scramble to find pool space to rent, which as you can imagine was quite difficult with such short notice,” Sion swim coach Kelly Timmons said.
Sion found a location at the Jewish Community Center but will now have to cut practice from 90 minutes to 30 minutes and will have to push the start back to 8 p.m.
There have been several outcomes when other Kansas City area YMCAs have closed.
When the Raytown YMCA closed in 2013, the Raytown School District took charge as the facility was renovated and reopened as the Raytown Schools Wellness Center, where if a person lives or works within the Raytown School District boundaries they can use the facilities.
In 2018, the 8th street YMCA in Downtown Kansas City, Kansas was forced to close when signs of deterioration led to a report from a structural engineer saying the building was not safe and nearby in 2020, the YMCA closed its Quality Hill location as well with the organization having long planned its Kirk Family YMCA in Downtown Kansas City.
The Kirk Family YMCA cost a total of $35 million. That project was funded with $16.9 million from the 11th Street Corridor Tax Increment Financing District, about $4 million in state tax credits from the Missouri Development Finance Board, and charitable gifts from foundations and individual donors.
In 2019, the YMCA near Blue Springs South High School was closed and that gap in the Blue Springs community still remains today, with no YMCA in the area.
In North Kansas City, a partnership between the YMCA and the city of North Kansas City allowed the Y to operate the former North Kansas City Community Center.
Once the Red Bridge YMCA closes, the closest community swimming pools will be at The View Community Center in Grandview and the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. The closest YMCA to the Red Bridge Shopping Center is just over five miles away at 70th and Troost.
Jackson County legislator Dan Tarwater has been a long time member of the Red Bridge YMCA. It’s where he met his wife decades ago. He attended the meeting with Hulet and community members.
“Growing up in South Kansas City our family was always a member,” Tarwater said. “We’re sad, but the book is not closed depending on who buys it.”