YMCA stabbed Vestavia Hills in the heart

Empty table at Vestavia Hills YMCA where older adults gather for fellowship.
Empty table at Vestavia Hills YMCA where older adults gather for fellowship

This is a tough time.

I’m hurt, disappointed and am feeling pain like many of my Vestavia Hills YMCA friends.

On May 17, The YMCA of Greater Birmingham abruptly announced it was closing our community branch at the end of the summer.

The announcement left me and my many YMCA friends in shock and disbelief.

I received no e-mail or letter in advance—I read about it on line in the Birmingham Business Journal.

I am a YMCA person

I believe in the YMCA mission.

I’ve been a member the Birmingham YMCA for 53 years—likely longer than any other person alive.

I served on the board of the Downtown YMCA Branch and as President. I was the first fundraising chairperson for the YMCA ‘Kids Campaign’ that has raised millions of dollars for low income children. And I later served on the board of the Greater Birmingham YMCA.

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life either working out at or working on the YMCA.

During those years I’ve witnessed profound change.

For those who don’t know, YMCA stands for Young Men’s Christian Association—which is truly remarkable since our members are not necessarily young, men, or Christian.

When I first joined the Y, there was an ‘all black’ branch on 8th Avenue North. No African-Americans were allowed at other branches.

At the original downtown YMCA on 20th Street North, open showers were located alongside the indoor swimming pool. Men and boys swam au naturel.

Men played handball on the roof in their jockey straps and sunbathed unclothed. When tall buildings were built around the Y, neighbors complained—and the men had to adjust accordingly.

I was at the downtown branch the day the first woman joined–men stood around and gawked–some quit.

Yes, there have been extraordinary changes at the Y—but always in the name of progress.

That is not the case with the Vestavia Hills Y.

Vestavia YMCA branch totally mismanaged

When my wife and I moved to Vestavia Hills, I was thrilled because there was a YMCA a mile from our house.

But it quickly became clear that this smaller, more intimate community Y was being treated as a second class citizen.

I watched in dismay as good employees quit or were promoted to bigger Y’s.

The building aged and when equipment broke it was not replaced or repaired promptly.

When members made reasonable requests, we were told bluntly by the staff that we are a small facility and the YMCA system would not support us.

We lost our membership director and were not given a replacement. How is a facility to recruit new members when no one has responsibility?

When discussing the YMCA situation with a friend who lives near the Y,  and I was surprised when she told me she wasn’t aware the Y has an outdoor pool.

But how could she know? I don’t know of any recent mailers or social media posts promoting our facility, pool, or programming.

Through the years, I met with Vestavia YMCA directors to suggest ideas—many which would cost nothing. None were ever implemented.

The Vestavia YMCA used to be open on Sundays from 10 am-5 pm. But then the management made the shortsighted decision to close on Sundays and we lost over 100 members in one week. After the disaster, the YMCA opened again, but the damage had been done.

The Vestavia Hills Y is a gem

Our Vestavia YMCA is more than an exercise facility.

We are a community.

We are a family.

We are diverse–servicing old, young, male, female, black, white, Latino, Asian, etc.

The Vestavia branch represents all the core values you’d expect from a YMCA.

Many of our members are seniors and their social life revolves around the Y.

In the morning, the facility is jam packed with older adults. You can hear their laughter all over the building as they drink coffee and joke with one another.

The closing of the Y could have been avoided

Dan Pile, the president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater Birmingham told al.com“A decline in both use of the facility and demand for the programs offered there and the facility’s need for extensive maintenance and repairs ultimately led to the decision.”

Since the Y spent virtually nothing on its building, equipment, or personnel for many years, what would you expect?

If you almost starve a child to death, then I guess you can rationalize that it’s now okay to finish the kid off.

Bottom line is that the YMCA management thought of the Vestavia branch as second rate and treated it that way. The resulting implosion was self-imposed.

Is there hope?

Managed properly and with a little help from our community, maybe our little old Y could be revived.

Our YMCA is important to Vestavia. Maybe the City of Vestavia would consider chipping in? (Do you know anyone on the City Council or the Mayor?)

Some of the media reported the event by publishing bits and pieces of the press release distributed by the YMCA, but no one took the time to interview the long term members.

This is a big story for our community–and no one seems to be paying attention.

We somehow saved UAB football; maybe we can find a way to save our community YMCA.

Let’s turn Birmingham around. Click here to sign up for our newsletter. There’s power in numbers. (Opt out at any time)

David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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22 thoughts on “YMCA stabbed Vestavia Hills in the heart”

  1. This article does not take into account changing preferences in regards to fitness facilities. Many younger people have been gravitating towards smaller and less expensive facilities like CrossFit and OrangeTheory. Others just exercise outside by running or cycling. As a result, big box facilities like YMCAs and JCCs have been in decline for a quite a while. For those that still want a full service pool, most of the suburbs like Homewood have community centers with very reasonably priced memberships. In fact Homewood now has two beautiful pools. So where is the niche for a YMCA or a JCC?

    1. You are absolutely correct about the industry as a whole that is highly competitive. A business has to make a profit or it can’t reinvest in upgraded facilities and programs along with ever increasing costs of doing business. The Y has been getting hammered from a business perspective. My example would be $ 10.00 monthly memberships from extremely large national organizations like Planet Fitness. Your example of Homewood is flawed. Taxpayers have been subsidizing Homewood facilities for years. The new Homewood Recreation Center built several years ago cost tax payers over 33 million dollars
      (financed with City debt) . $ 1,300.00 plus in new taxes for every man woman and child in Homewood just to build the facility) with no vote or referendum from the tax payers unlike the original facility built over 45 years ago. The projections presented by the Parks and Recreation Board showed it loosing money for eternity, and then they raised the rates for existing members. They even allowed non residents (who are not taxpayers in Homewood) to join which was necessary to further bolster the bottom losing proposition. Needless to say responsible taxpayers were extremely upset. All Homewood taxpayers are subsidizing this money losing proposition while people who are not paying taxes in Homewood get to utilize the facility. A really stupid decision. This decision along with several other debt laden projects in Homewood ballooned Homewood’s debt to over 210 million dollars for a City of only 25,000 plus residents making it one of the highest debt per capita cities in Alabama. Then the next thing they did was raise sales taxes to 10% from 9% because they could not afford their big dreams and we all got burned. So there you have it. City subsidized facilities like recreation facilities are good if they pay for themselves. They are terrible if they don’t. Don’t be too upset with the YMCA for closing a money losing facility. Think of the UAB football program and what it had to go through to launch once again. You have to have income, investment, and profit to thrive. You also have to be competitive.

      1. Kevin, you are certainly correct about businesses needing to earn a profit, but the Vestavia Hills YMCA was easily sustainable if it had been managed properly. The reason the facility is suffering was self-inflicted. The building wasn’t maintained, the equipment wasn’t updated or fixed in a timely manner, the personnel constantly turned over, and members’ concerns weren’t addressed. That being said, would you consider writing a guest blog about Homewood?

        1. Business comes and goes based on its ability to run a successful enterprise in the face of competition. So let’s just say they messed up and did a poor job. That is how capitalism works in America, and I’m OK with that. I personally like the YMCA. But government competing with private enterprise using taxpayer money is just plain wrong. Not to mention the fact that these businesses pay taxes and obtain business licenses in the communities that compete with them using tax payer subsidies, even with projected losses for an eternity. Something very wrong with this picture. Cities need to support independent business, and when possible, procure products and services from these tax payers as preferred vendors in their own communities. But the one thing business owners hate the most is Cities and Counties using tax payer money, and incentives to create new competition with long term businesses that have supported the community for years. Frankly its immoral at best. Good to communicating with you yet again. Keep up the good work.

      2. My point is that the city subsidized facilities are putting pressure on YMCAs and JCCs. Whether or not it was a good decision to build those tax payer funded facilities to begin with is beside the point (they are already built and in operation).

        As a Homewood resident, I appreciate the facilities that were built and we will be using them almost daily starting this weekend. While this does increase the tax burden on residents, bear in mind that it also likely boosts property values and provides a great quality of life.

        1. With all due respect, your comments sound just like the Parks and Recreation Board when they were selling this idea. Extremely naive. I used the facilities extensively and so did my kids in the past, but not today. You have got to dig deeper to truly understand what happened. I don’t like having debt and taxes rammed down my throat be a few with an agenda, and no referendum or public vote. Glad your are enjoying the facilities at the expense of others who were not in favor of the project. That’s not to say it could not have been handled in a different manner that could have been dramatically more effective and efficient and tax payer friendly. But they were not having any. By the way – my properties value is increasing, but it has nothing to do with the new facility. And my quality of life is just fine. Without the added taxes – Thank You!

  2. Is there any chance Vestavia ever creates a city gym, like Homewood and Hoover have? I remember Vestavia bought the Gold’s Gym that used to be on 31 and were using it for “recreational purposes,” but not any sort of fitness center. Maybe there is enough demand to warrant it now with the Y gone.

  3. I am one of those senior citizens who goes 5 times a week to this Y. Our water aerobics class is a community. The place were liberal and conservative people join together to work on our fitness. And during these turbulent times that alone is so very important.

    Along the way we have had a book shower for one of the member’s new grandchild, chipped in when an instructor had to quit her job to care for a dying husband. One of our members has a community garden and provides fresh produce during the summer. When I needed hip replacements members of the class brought food, lent adaptive equipment and checked on me.
    It almost feels as though we who are mainly women and older people are now being discounted.

    1. That needs to be read by all interested. Thanks, Melissa, for writing this. I can see the community aspect there at the Y and I feel the same. Whatever we can do to keep this Y, lots of us are all in.

  4. I was a proud board member and long-time member of the YMCA. It was especially gratifying to witness the scholarship opportunities afforded those who otherwise couldn’t avail themselves of what the YMCA offers. Do for-profit organizations offer such opportunities? My daughter exercises daily at a YMCA. She does so because the YMCA provides babysitting for her two year old twins. She lives in West Homewood so the Vestavia YMCA was very convenient. She used that facility to exercise and lost a great deal of weight. However, poor management forced her to decide that the Shades Valley YMCA was more appropriate. We don’t know why the decision to close the Vestavia branch was made. If decreased utilization due to poor management was the cause, that is truly disappointing and easily remedied.

  5. This happens when population is stagnant. I don’t think it has anything to do with people preferring other smaller gyms like Orange Theory, Iron Tribe, or other boutique gyms. It has to do with lack of demand period. Where I live, there’s a very nice new YMCA right next to an Equinox, down the street from LIfetime, and there are 10x more boutique gyms than what’s around Birmingham. Yet the Y’s continue to do very well.

    Have there been any Y’s closing in Nashville? Atlanta? Orlando? Austin? Dallas? Each of those cities have 10x+ the number of small boutique gyms and big box gyms but they’re not closing. So why would a Y in Vestavia (an upscale suburb with no other big box gym) be closing? Population is growing older and no one new is moving in.

  6. This is a fantastic article and perfectly illustrates what the Vestavia Y means to so many. I started a FACEBOOK PAGE called “Save Vestavia YMCA” I am dedicated to allowing people’s voices be heard so we can reverse this decision. This is a community that deserves to keep their meeting house! There is nothing like it. If you are reading this please visit that page and leave a comment in favor of your support. We will also be able to use it as a way to communicate meetings and petitions. Thank you for your support.

  7. Perhaps, Vestavia could use some to those I65 speeding tickets to fund it.
    Again, why is VHPD on the interstate to start with?

  8. David, with all due respect (and I do enjoy your writings), the media picked up on this closure through proactive communications from the YMCA District Office. Perhaps you do not receive their emails or checked your email that morning:

    ———- Forwarded message ———
    From: The YMCA of Greater Birmingham
    Date: Fri, May 17, 2019 at 8:04 AM
    Subject: YMCA Vestavia Branch Closing 8/30/19

    Dear Members and Friends of The YMCA of Greater Birmingham,

    Built in 1988 as part of the SportsFirst fitness complex and purchased in 2005 by The YMCA of Greater Birmingham, the YMCA Vestavia Family Branch has touched the lives of many Y members, athletes, sports teams, swimmers, day campers, school children, active seniors, staff, and others in the Birmingham community over the years. Here, community members have experienced awesome workouts, made lifelong friends, and have enjoyed the sort of personal transformation for which the YMCA is known. They’ve overcome, for example, their fear of the water to learn how to swim. They’ve learned how to be physically well, how to pursue that wellness through exercise, diet, and spiritual groundedness. They’ve learned how to be motivated to achieve their goals.

    But, over the past few years, we have experienced a notable decline in the use of these facilities and demand for the programs offered here. Of greater concern, the Vestavia YMCA facility currently faces extensive maintenance needs, which, in conjunction with the decline in use has led us to the prudent but difficult contemplation of the long-term viability of the Y’s presence in this location. Over the past year or more, the leadership of the YMCA of Greater Birmingham has conducted evaluations of all of our properties to determine what it will take to bring them into the future, to equip them to serve you in new and exciting ways, to continue to be a part of those personal transformations that make the Y so special.

    From these evaluations, we have developed a five-year plan to invest more than $20 million in our facilities. After evaluating the portion of that investment that would be required to bring the Vestavia branch facilities up to both our expectations and municipal codes, and in recognition of the fact that we have several other branches close enough to be accessed by our Vestavia Y community with relative ease, we have made the difficult and painful decision to close the Vestavia YMCA location, effective August 30, 2019.

    We regret having to close this branch. But, know, that closing Vestavia will allow us to ensure a strong and vibrant YMCA for many years to come. We will be able to invest in our programs and other facilities. While we reflect on the bonds of friendship and happy memories that are so precious to those of us who’ve spent time here, let us also be mindful of how this closure will open doors of happiness elsewhere.

    We look forward to the excellent upgrades to both facilities and programs at our other branches. Thank you for your loyalty and support of the YMCA. We look forward to continuing to serve you far into the future.

    Sincerely,
    Dan Pile
    President, Chief Executive Officer
    The YMCA of Greater Birmingham

  9. Regarding the gentleman who used the Y when his kids were little, but not now – if those who came before him had taken that same attitude then it would not have existed for him and his kids to use. They created it for themselves AND for the future. He did like it when he needed or wanted it. Shouldn’t he be as willing to help those who come after him?

    1. I believe you are referring to my comments about the HWD recreation center. Although you appear to be referring to the Y of which I have used both. I paid my membership dues at both just like any other member, and paid my taxes long before, during, and after I used the old HWD facility of which I continue to do today. This is my only obligation. I resent having additional tax money extorted from me with no consent due to the desire of an appointed Park Board and a City Council. The first facility was decided on by a referendum of the residents of HWD over 45 years ago when the original facility was built. The new 33 plus million dollar debt laden – money pit was not. This is Taxation without Representation. I wonder how many Vestavia residents left the Vestavia Y and started to come to HWD’s new taxpayer subsidized money pit? You should also understand that several private fitness facilities and the HWD YMCA suffered in memberships and income as a result. Government subsidized competition in the fitness industry is the same thing as China subsidizing their steel industry to compete with ours. It’s unfair competition and immoral especially since the tax payer had no say in the matter, and their is no accountability for the results of this decision. Another fine example of type of abhorrent behavior is tax payer money being used to incentivize businesses who compete with long standing local businesses who did not have the same advantage, but still have to pay taxes at all levels which in turn are then used for this type of behavior of which has been discussed in previous Comeback Town articles. Surely you understand this?

  10. I am also a long-term member and big supporter of the Y.

    I believe a number of issues hurt the Vestavia YMCA’s long-term viability, but the main thing was when the exit was put in at Lakeshore. It severely affected Columbiana Road and all the businesses located there. In addition, Vestavia’s growth has not been in that area.

    The change in demographics, i.e. aging population in that area also hurt it.
    I know that when the Vestavia facility was owned by SportsFirst, it was the worst performing location for them. The senior management of SportsFirst was trying to determine what to do with this facility long before it was ever sold to the Y. Its number of users had been declining for years, which is something David did not address.

    I also believe people’s exercise habits have changed dramatically over the years, which has hurt the Y. Just look around at all of the young folks and some older folks using cross-fit gyms today.

    I have lived in Homewood for 27 years and I have stayed involved there. I strongly disagree with Kevin about the governance of Homewood and always have. I know the mayor and city council do a fantastic job running Homewood!

    1. John, thanks for your thoughtful comments. A great benefit of publishing ComebackTown is the many things I learn from people who take time to give their perspective or who have information I’m not aware. I have lived in Vestavia Hills for 14 years and don’t know what you mean about exit being put in at Lakeshore? Which exit? How did this impact Columbiana?

      I was told by a Vestavia YMCA member who ran a major Birmingham fitness facility in his previous life that the Vestavia SportsFirst facility was profitable when sold to the YMCA. I have no way of knowing.

      The one thing I do know for sure since I’m at the Vestavia YMCA everyday and have spent many hours at other YMCA’s is how poorly is has been managed. Equipment is not up dated and in poor repair. When Gold’s Gym in Vestavia nearby was closed, there was no effort made by the Y to recruit the members. The decision to close the Y on Sunday was a disaster. I could go on and on.

      Please continue to comment.

      1. The exit at Lakeshore Dr. and I-65 that was put in for the Wildwood development 30 years ago. It completely changed the dynamics of Columbiana Road and the traffic patterns for that area.

    2. John, here’s a copy of an e-mail I received this morning: “Good article. I have lived in Vestavia 6 years and didn’t even know we had a YMCA😱. Never any publicity and I read their magazines and newspaper and newsletter.”

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