John Wren (far right) and a group of YMCA handball players.
Anthony Camera

Sweat Equity

The swimming pool, gone. The running track, closed. The handball court, extinct. Consider such archaic facilities knocked down, cleaned out and forgotten in favor of a newer and thoroughly modern vision of the downtown Denver YMCA. As the outreach slogan of the nonprofit organization reminds members, the 21st-century YMCA is no longer just gyms and swimming classes. It's..."A Y Without Walls."

But some Denver members who measure their YMCA affiliation by the decade rather than the month say their beloved club has forgotten something: them.

"A 'Y Without Walls' makes as much sense as a swimming pool without water," grouses member and handball aficionado John Wren.

The controversy began when the YMCA of Metropolitan Denver agreed to sell its 95-year-old downtown flagship in December to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless for $8.45 million, then paid $3 million to retain 43,000 square feet for fitness facilities. The deal gives the coalition, which assumed ownership last Friday, a new place to house low-income families.

Though the YMCA will upgrade its locker rooms, Youth Center and fitness equipment, it's closing the largest gym, nine handball courts and the swimming pool to make room for the new apartments.

"These facilities have been financed by the members, and now they're selling it off and using [the money] for other things in the community," says Hugh McCool, a member since 1972. "What kind of YMCA in a major city doesn't have a swimming pool and handball courts? They might as well close it."

The protest campaign is called "No Renovation Without Representation." The protesters claim profits made from their facility have been used to support unsuccessful YMCA ventures in the suburbs and had to be sold to offset the accrued debt. Since 1999, four YMCA locations -- in Aurora, south Jefferson County, Littleton and Adams County -- have either been closed, sold, or put up for sale. The protesters demand a halt to construction until the changes can be voted on by the YMCA general membership and call for a new, member-elected board of directors.

Teresa Luxem, executive director of the metro Denver YMCA, confirms that money from the downtown sale will be used to reduce debt accrued by other facilities. But she disputes the claim that the downtown operation, at 25 East 16th Avenue, was profitable, noting that it owes millions in "deferred maintenance." For years, the YMCA "hasn't put the necessary dollars back into the building," she says, adding that although $2 million from the sale will be used to renovate the downtown facility, the remainder will be used to reduce the association's debt.

Thomas Craine, the metro Denver YMCA president who coined the "Y Without Walls" slogan, says the organization is interested in a "broader vision" than downtown handball courts and swimming pools. "[The facilities] have gone by their prime," he says. "They're great at one point and time, but no longer meet contemporary needs and the kind of programming we need to offer the community."

Craine says the Y has become the state's largest provider of after-school child care and says such programs get back "to the original triangle of trying to build healthy spirit, mind and body." The YMCA has made arrangements for members to use the pools and handball courts at nearby gyms and is even offering to shuttle its members to those establishments. "So it's not like we just tried to cast people adrift," Craine says.

YMCA boardmember Mike Dino, a consultant at the Patton Boggs law firm, also supports the changes. "The greater good is being served with our partnership with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless," he says. "It's something more important at this point than the concerns of some people about what we're going to do with the athletic facility."

But to Wren, a former marketing director of the now-defunct Denver Symphony Orchestra who learned to swim at the YMCA pool, the issue goes further. The YMCA has always been a place for him and his interests. The increased emphasis on child-care programs and cardio equipment, he says, represents the "feminization" of the YMCA as their suburban outlets struggle to compete with health clubs. "They've come to see themselves as a 24-Hour Fitness," Wren says, "where you exercise and get out."


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