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'A first step:' Director of Duluth YMCA addresses local supporters

BEMIDJI -- There is no single "cookie-cutter approach" to establishing a YMCA in a new community, said Chris Francis, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Family YMCA, in a Monday evening presentation at the Hampton Inn & Suites.

"The YMCA exists in a community to meet the needs of that individual community," he said, addressing about 20 people gathered in one of the lakeside conference rooms. "If you build a YMCA here it's not going to look like the Duluth Y."

And that's how it should be, said Francis, in Bemidji to address a core group of supporters who have been working toward the goal of establishing a local YMCA. To do that, the Bemidji YMCA would have to be a branch of an existing Y as new independent YMCAs are no longer being chartered.

It is a process Francis understands well. Not only does he oversee the Downtown YMCA in Duluth, but he likewise runs the Cook County Community Center YMCA in Grand Marais, YMCA Camping Services near Duluth and YMCA Community Services in Duluth.

"We're a lot more than the four walls of the facility. We're a lot more than gym and swim," Francis said, noting the Duluth Y has programming in all of Duluth's schools.

The process to open a Y can take years. Francis detailed a five-step process that hinges on assessments and studies, including a feasibility study that could run in the range of $20,000. Those early investigations would reveal any gaps that may exist now in the community and the type of programming a YMCA could offer to fill them.

"We don't want to supplant anything that currently exists," Francis said. "We want to enhance it and complement it."

Indeed, he stressed several times the importance of partnering with other agencies and nonprofits, to raise support and enthusiasm for such a project, not to mention funds later on when, if the process gains traction, the community would need to establish a physical YMCA presence and pay staff.

There is no set timeframe for how long it will take to go from concept to construction, but Francis said the quickest he has ever seen a community get through the process was in Cook County, where it took less than two years to open a new center, mainly because the community already had approved a 1 percent sales tax to go toward a community center that the city opted to have the Duluth YMCA operate. That Y, in a city of 1,300 residents has 1,400 members.

"That shows you the impact of what a YMCA does to the community," he said.

These days, he said, while there are any numbers of ways to approach a new facility, it seems more likely that one would be built through a partnership. In Hermantown, where Francis is deeper into the process toward authorizing a new branch of the Duluth Y, that community is considering a health and wellness center and partnering with the local medical community. Other Ys are attached to schools, and Francis mentioned one Y at which the local hospital does physical therapy at a dedicated area through a long-term lease, thus making it so that patients don't have to return to the hospital for rehabilitation.

"Typically when we build a Y we look for collaborative partners," Francis said. "It's rare now that we stand alone."

Those types of decisions, he said, are left to the local community. Even if a Bemidji YMCA is founded as a branch of the Duluth YMCA, Francis said the legwork that goes into establishing such a facility is left to local stakeholders so they themselves can map out the goals and community needs.

"The local grassroots effort is key," Francis said. "This is the first step. Hopefully you can look back in a few years and say you were here at the first meeting, for this first step."