Ernie Blackburn, 73, has been a member of the Frank P. Phillips YMCA for about 35 years, he says, and it’s more than just a membership card he’s kept tucked in his wallet.
“I work out there five to six times a week,” Blackburn said. “I have kind of a rotation. One day it’s the spin bike, the next day it’s the recumbent, then the elliptical. I take turns using all the equipment. It keeps it from being boring.”
There was just one thing the Y didn’t provide, something Blackburn characterizes more as a wish than a complaint.
“Sunday is kind of a down day, nothing going on,” he said. “When there’s nothing good to watch on TV or anything to do, I remember thinking, ‘Boy, it sure would be nice if I could go down to the Y and work out.’”
A month ago, that wish came true — not just for Blackburn but for any member who wants to work out at times when the Y isn’t open.
On June 8, the Y started allowing members 24/7 access to both the Caledonia and downtown YMCAs. For a one-time cost of $10 (which covers the cost of the key-fob used to access the main entrances after hours), members have access to the Y’s exercise room, locker rooms and lobby 24/7.
“We’re always looking for opportunities to meet our members’ needs, and with so many people today working shifts or having different schedules, we felt this would be something our members would use,” said YMCA Director Jimmy Woodruff. “The response has been very positive.”
The numbers bear that out. In the one month since the Y added 24/7 access, 300 members have purchased the key fobs that allow them to use the facilities any time day or night, including Sundays.
While the decision to make the facilities available for after-hours use was something the YMCA Board of Directors immediately recognized as something that would increase the value of membership, it did create something of a dilemma — a departure from a practice that has been part of the way since its opening 97 years ago.
In 1924, businessman Frank P. Phillips donated $100,000 — the equivalent of $1.5 million today — as an endowment for the YMCA that now bears his name. There was one condition: The Y would not be open on Sundays.
When the YMCA board voted to provide 24/7 access, it meant the Y would be available to members even on Sundays.
“That was something that was part of the discussion,” YMCA Board President Bain Nickels said. “We certainly were aware that being closed on Sundays was part of our tradition. It’s not a decision we made lightly, but we really haven’t heard any complaints, not as far as I know.”
Woodruff said it’s up to the members to make the decision about using the Y facilities on Sundays and believes that the Y is keeping to the spirit, if not the strict spirit, of the long-standing practice.
“We have access on Sundays, but we’re not ‘open’ in the sense that we don’t have staff here on Sundays or have programs on Sundays,” Woodruff said. “The spiritual component of what we do has been a big part of our mission since it started and our programs reflect that. That hasn’t changed.”
Nickels said the feedback has been very positive.
“I think our members really see this as an added benefit to what we do,” he said. “We’ve bounced back from COVID. We are energized and ready to grow our membership. I think this is an exciting way to do that and do something we haven’t offered in the past.”
Blackburn said he’s seen the proof of that already.
“I’ve been going on Sunday afternoons since they started this and every time, there’s always three or four or five other people there,” he said. “I’ve never been the only one there. I’m not sure if it’s that way other times. I’m never going to be somebody who works out at midnight or 4 in the morning, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who do. It’s nice to have the option and I’m glad they decided to do this.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]