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The ABCs of creating a YMCA: Local group moves forward to develop center in Bemidji

BEMIDJI — It all started because a mother got mad.

“I was calling around to different hotels, trying to figure out how much it would cost to bring the kids to swim once a week, to keep them active this winter,” said Tina Johnson, of Bemidji. “It was ridiculous.”

With that, she renewed an effort to establish a YMCA in Bemidji.

“It’s a community thing, something we can do for our families and for our youth,” Johnson said.

Johnson, a mother of three, sent a Facebook message through the “This is My Town: Bemidji” page in hopes of hearing from others willing to work toward the founding of a local YMCA, a nonprofit business that promotes youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

She’s made progress and now has several people on a board of directors meets monthly. But more dedicated volunteers are needed.

“I do need people who have contacts and resources in the area that so that this continues to move forward,” she said.

Johnson has been working with two YMCA administrators in Minnesota to get the ball rolling. Johnson has been talking with Mark Hennessy, who oversees Minnesota YMCAs, and Jeff Bartholomew, the executive director of the YMCA in Alexandria, which started offering preliminary programming in 2006 before opening a new 56,000 square-foot program center in 2010.

“(Alexandria) has gone through this process recently and can help guide us,” Johnson said, noting Bartholomew is planning to visit Bemidji and talk with the board of directors about the next steps in the process.

Currently, the board is focused on developing its bylaws, establishing itself as a 501c3 nonprofit, and developing vision and mission statements.

Fundraising cannot start until those items are accomplished, Johnson said.

“We’re moving, but it’s at a major turtle’s pace,” she said.

But as the process creeps along, Johnson said she’s motivated by all the support and encouragement she is receiving from throughout the community.

“People have just been like, ‘Yes, we absolutely need this,’” she said.

She’s heard a multitude of ideas, from splash pads to childcare to indoor playgrounds.

“It’s kind of nice to think of a place, where parents can go work out, drop the kids at day care, a child care area, where they can play themselves, and then afterwards, when they’re all done, they can all go swimming together,” she said.

She, herself, pictures a facility that serves families, providing outlets for recreation and fitness, even for those with special needs.

“I also envision it as a place for parents who have youth with disabilities,” she said. “I want to make sure that we have somewhere in there, the Y, where kids with disabilities can go to play safely, where their parents have tools that they don’t have at home.”

Ideally, Johnson said she would love to locate a YMCA — which carries the approximate cost of about $10.5 million — downtown, perhaps on the old high school property, which is now owned and up for sale by the Bemidji State University Foundation.

But all those details are still to come. The current focus must remain on the more mundane tasks at hand.

“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said, referencing the expected timeline of five to eight years before such a facility would open, “but if you want something done right, you’ve got to put the work into it.”

To get involved

The local YMCA board next meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at First Lutheran Church, 900 Bemidji Ave. N. All are welcome. Additionally, Tina Johnson can be contacted via email at