Good Growth

Ashland Family YMCA
Ashland, Ore.

By Sutton R. Stokes

"What do you want to do today?"

This can't be an easy question for the residents of historic Ashland, Ore.

Founded in the mid-1800s and home to Southern Oregon University and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (now in its 70th year), Ashland is nestled at the foot of the Cascade Mountains, near the headwaters of the Rogue and Klamath Rivers, and within daytrip range of Crater Lake National Park and the towering cliffs of the Oregon coast.

The region, with an elevation of 2,000 feet, enjoys four distinct if mild seasons and one of the lowest average rainfalls in the entire state, keeping outdoor recreation options open year-round. In winter, skiers can find two dozen downhill runs and 80 miles of cross-country trails on 7,500-foot Mt. Ashland, only 15 miles from town. Warmer months bring prime conditions for rafting and angling on the many nearby creeks, streams and rivers. Just outside their front doors, Ashland residents can enjoy 93 acres of downtown parkland along scenic Bear Creek.

Clearly, Ashland is a paradise for active types, but this raises a question for recreation facility administrators: Is an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities a blessing or a curse when trying to attract people to an indoor fitness facility?

In Ashland, it appears to be a blessing. The Ashland Family YMCA, with a staff of 175 full- and part-time employees, boasts 6,700 members, or one-third of the town's 20,000 residents. Non-member participation in local YMCA-run sports leagues and other programs brings the annual number of facility users to more than 10,000, according to Ashland Family YMCA Executive Director Lisa Molnar.

"It's unusual to have that amount of a community belonging to any organization," says Molnar, whose facility offers everything from family scuba classes to yoga for seniors to junior camp counselor training for young teens, in addition to weight training, aerobics classes and an indoor pool.

"We feel like the Y is really the community center: We're the senior center, we're the fitness center, we're the largest child-care provider in Ashland," she says. "We're not the only game in town…but the Y seems to have the broadest base."

It's a broad base that has been many years in the making. There has been a YMCA in one location or another in Ashland since 1899, although the current facility didn't open until 1990. Modest in its scope, the original building included only a preschool, some offices and a small aerobics studio. Two years later, a 14,000-square-foot gymnasium was added. The initial community response was reserved.

"In those first couple of years…we were lucky if we had about 500 members," remembers Molnar, pointing out that most of those were children in day care or in youth sports leagues.

The initially moderate membership skyrocketed after the 1998 addition of an indoor pool facility. Designed by Ogden Kistler Architecture AIA, the natatorium includes a 45-by-75-foot pool, ranging from three to nine feet in depth, with a separate therapy pool. Providing the first year-round pool in the Ashland community, this addition also permitted Ashland YMCA to shift equipment and make room for expansions in all of the facility's functions, not just the pool-based activities.

"It allowed us to grow our child-care programs as well, so while we added adult programs, we kept our focus also on our youth programs," Molnar says. "Once we opened and equipped that part of our building, we grew to close to 5,000 members. It was a time of tremendous growth."

So much growth, in fact, that a final expansion was needed almost immediately. Ogden Kistler provided the design work again, mapping out an expansion of the fitness center, an additional aerobics studio, an enlarged lobby and a two-room conference facility.

Adding a combined 36,000 square feet, at a cost of $3.2 million, the two Ogden Kistler-designed expansions were faced with some obstacles. In the pool area, one question that arose was how to protect the exposed structural steel framing from airborne chlorine, "which is usually responsible for the abbreviated life cycles of any indoor natatorium," according to Jim Roemer, project architect.

Since airborne chlorine is carried by moisture in the air, Roemer explains, his team decided to dry the air in the enclosure as it circulates.

"We also coated the structural steel with more than just your average steel paint," Roemer says. "It's an actual epoxy coating."

Another challenge appeared during the expansion of the original building's first-floor aerobics room. It was considered imperative that no columns break up what would be a 60-foot span of open space, in order to maximize the room's flexibility. However, the planned second-story weight room above the studio would require considerable structural support.

"To get a free span of 60 feet with no columns…almost couldn't be done; we had to help to support these long-span steel beams with the superstructure of the roof above the second floor," says Roemer, who compares the technique to that used for suspension bridges.

Completed in 2002, the final expansion phase boosted membership rolls once again.

"When we built that final piece of the building, that was just to accommodate the [5,000] members we already had; since then, over the last year and a half, we're now up to about 6,700 members and really pretty full," says Molnar, who doesn't anticipate any further expansions.

As proud as Molnar is of the growth of the facility, she is quick to point to another aspect of the YMCA as the most satisfying aspect of her job.

"Almost every single day I will see or talk to somebody in need that we're able to help through our programs and services," says Molnar, who points out that, since the YMCA is not operated for-profit, financial assistance is available to children and families who wouldn't otherwise be able to participate in sports leagues, summer camps and other YMCA programs. "It's something that makes me feel the best about what we do."

And it must be at least part of the reason why the YMCA is able to provide so many Ashland residents with the answer to the question: "What do you want to do today?"

For more information
Ashland Family YMCA:

OgdenRoemerWilkerson Architecture:

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