Feature Article - October 2004
Find a printable version here


These days, people want more and more from their rec centers and sports clubs. But how do multipurpose facilities expand without spreading themselves too thin?

By Kyle Ryan


Located near Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green urban housing projects (which inspired the TV show Good Times), New City YMCA is the largest branch of the Y in Chicago. With Cabrini Green being slowly dismantled, and condominiums popping up in its place, New City finds itself in the middle of a radical neighborhood transformation.

Inside the club, though, it's mostly business as usual for the Y's 4,800 members. About one-third of the New City's 54,000 square feet is devoted to exercise and wellness. The facility, which opened in 1980, also has an indoor pool, group-fitness rooms and newly renovated locker rooms.

New City's a far cry from the sprawling clubs mentioned above, but the YMCA is a nonprofit organization that holds its family-centered values above all else. For a nonprofit or municipality, staying current in such a trendy, competitive field is especially difficult. (Crunch Fitness opened a flagship club this year down the road from New City.) That's why proper staffing is critical, according to Executive Director Phillip Baaske.

"We've got a great staff, and we're part of the Chicago Metro Y, and now we have 30 wellness directors that meet and train together and keep current," Baaske says. "Then members tell you what they want."

Despite New City's limited resources, Baaske says the club makes enhancements about every six months. Nearly two years ago, the club invested in a personalized training system that provides workout instructions at each equipment station based on the person's goals and history. Users can also track their progress online. Not surprisingly, such a system comes with a hefty price tag.

"We just bit the bullet because we knew it would pay back in retention," Baaske says. "For those that use it, retention is much higher; it's almost 80 percent."

Another big project that happened around the same time was the addition of Cubs Care Park, a ball field designed to be a miniature Wrigley Field. The Y built it through a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation. During the day, the Cabrini Green Little League and other youth organizations use it. At night, adults play in coed 16-inch softball leagues, which fund the field so kids can play there for free.

The eye-catching field has also opened up another revenue stream for the New City Y through corporate events and neighborhood festivals.

"It brings all the people to the Y, which hopefully helps our membership, and makes it a fun, family place," Baaske says.

The Y has also had success through its masters swimming, Pilates and marathon-training programs. Although limiting in one regard, its small budget serves as a sort of protection from short-lived fads.

"I wish we were that trendy that we were hitting it then getting off when it's not working anymore," Baaske says, laughing.

Kidding aside, Baaske believes the Y's facility is impressive enough and its customer service strong enough to keep members from going somewhere else.

"We have a lot of staff, so we try to know people on a first-name basis and try to make them feel like a family," Baaske says.

In the near future, Baaske hopes to add another ball diamond and improve the facility's soccer field. But what about all the condos slowly boxing in the facility?

"Those are potential members," Baaske says.