November 22, 2015: Central YMCA to mark centennial during open house

A YMCA swimming competition in an undated photo. (Image courtesy of the Central YMCA archive)

Above: A YMCA swimming competition in an undated photo. (Courtesy of the YMCA archive)

Every Saturday, hundreds of children would pack the cafeteria lines of the Youngstown YMCA for snacks and cherry Cokes before gathering to watch back-to-back feature films such as “The Little Rascals” and “Abbott and Costello.” On Sunday, Nov. 22, cherry Coke will flow for the first time since the mid-1970s as part of the Central YMCA centennial celebration. The open house occurs from 2-6 p.m. at 17 N. Champion St. in downtown Youngstown.

“As many as 1,000 kids would go through the cafeteria eating hot dogs, French fries and drinking cherry Coke,” said Dick Bennett, chairman of the Centennial Committee. “That was a big deal, and we’re going to do that again at the open house.”

Past and present YMCA members are invited to attend as well as the public. In addition to hotdogs and cherry Cokes and old movies shown in the building’s auditorium, light refreshments will be served, tours will be conducted and multiple displays of historic photos and memorabilia will be placed throughout the 100-year-old building.

Besides recognizing the Y’s history, the open house will give the public a chance to hear about the $5 million renovation project that will change the face of the Central YMCA. While the Y has continued to offer the programs it is known for, such as basketball, swimming, volleyball, weight-lifting, racquetball and handball, it is excited about new opportunities that will result from the planned facility upgrades, said Central YMCA Executive Director Mike Shaffer.

Construction activities will begin in February on the adult fitness and weight-training areas, which will be relocated to renovated space on the second floor. The building’s front lobby and façade will receive a complete facelift, complete with new lighting and large pane glass windows, allowing members in the cardio studio to overlook the downtown. These renovations will open up space for a dedicated aerobics studio, an exercise and play area for children, and a newly renovated area for teen programs, including a music recording and performing arts studio. Shaffer expects the renovation project to be completed by the end of 2016.

The $5 million renovation is funded by a combination of fundraising, donations, New Markets Tax Credits and the Y’s own resources.

“We believe that the open house will be a great opportunity to talk about and celebrate the YMCA’s history while looking forward to its future,” Shaffer said. “We’re giving ourselves a chance to respond to changes in the community with relevant programs, and this renovation project will help us do just that.”

This will be the area’s first major YMCA project since the construction of the D.D. & Velma Davis Family YMCA in Boardman in 2003. The YMCA saw its membership triple to more than 17,000 with the addition of the Davis YMCA.

The Central YMCA has undergone numerous changes since President William Howard Taft, a Cincinnati native, dedicated the building in November 1915. From housing WKBN Radio, from 1926 to the station’s final broadcast on July 6, 1951, to the expansion of the education department that would give birth to what today is Youngstown State University, and multiple upgrades and additions, Bennett said he is pleased that the YMCA board of directors and staff has never wavered in their commitment to downtown and maintaining high building standards. Yet with all of the changes through the decades, what Bennett is most proud of is the Y’s commitment to leadership, both as a fixture in the community and as a place where future leaders are nurtured and developed.

It’s been 24 years since Bennett served as the YMCA’s CEO – he served from 1976 to 1991 – but he is still committed to the Y’s mission of service and volunteers his time, especially at Camp Fitch. During the summer, Bennett takes a group of six to eight volunteers to the camp for various projects. Most recently, they completed a three-quarter-mile wooden trail through a marshy area of the camp that is used primarily for outdoor education in the spring.

“My fondest memory of the YMCA, what I felt best about, was what I called the Leaders Club; an opportunity for high school boys and girls to volunteer on Saturdays to help with swimming lessons and gymnasium programs,” Bennett added. “I have a list of probably 50 to 60 people who volunteered in that program and have gone on to be YMCA board members and directors throughout the country. It’s amazing for an operation of our size to produce that many, and I try to stay in touch with a lot of them.”

Reconnecting with community members who grew up participating in Y programs is one of the primary reasons for the centennial open house, Bennett said. Central YMCA staff will welcome current and former members and the general public for facility tours, meet-and-greets, historical photo displays and refreshments. The goal of the centennial open house is to bring recognition to the 100-year-old building that’s “still extremely viable and important to downtown.” Bennett added.

“When Youngstown was having its tough times in the 60s and 70s, and when the steel mills closed, we drew more people downtown than anybody. We’re anxious to meet and greet people who were members as young people, and we’re hoping that they’ll bring their children and grandchildren to visit the facility where they had fun and learned so much over the years. The Central YMCA has long served Youngstown as “a facility that offers programming to all segments of the community in one building.”

In the beginning, it was a refuge for young farmers coming into the city to work, providing a place to stay with food and facilities. As it grew, it became a place where anyone would gather, and was even the primary place to eat in downtown Youngstown, he recalled. After service, churchgoers would come to the Y’s cafeteria, which served breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“It’s been such a melting pot of haves and have-nots. I’ve traveled all over the country and I make a point to check out the YMCA at every place. We’ve had a super operation over the years that’s been an asset to the community and comparable to any other city’s operation,” Bennett concluded.

Established in 1872 by Dr. R.D. Gibson, the Youngstown YMCA grew and moved into the second floor of its new building on East Federal Street before relocating again to its current location at 17 N. Champion St. in 1915. Other branches include Camp Fitch on Lake Erie and the D.D. & Velma Davis Family YMCA in Boardman. For more information, visit youngstownymca.org.

© 2015 Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.

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