by CHRIS ROGERS
It has taken longer than expected, but the Winona Area Family YMCA is pushing forward in its campaign to construct a new home for the Y. Winona YMCA Interim CEO Bill Soper announced the Y plans to break ground on the new facility this August. The Y is in a final fundraising push to make up the $2-million gap between the project’s expected $14-million price tag and the $12 million that has been raised so far. “In the next two months, we’re going to try to close that gap,” Soper stated.
The project’s gist remains the same since it was first announced in 2016. Driven by limited parking, handicap accessibility problems, and expensive maintenance needs at its current building, the Y is planning to build a new facility just south of the Winona Health clinic. It will be a shared facility, with space for Winona Health's Rehabilitation Services department and with opportunities for the two organizations to collaborate on preventing chronic disease. Diabetes and obesity are among Winona’s most common health problems.
There have been some changes since 2016. After former Winona YMCA CEO Derek Madsen resigned to take a new job last August, the Winona YMCA Board contracted with the La Crosse Y, and Soper — who is the La Crosse Y’s full-time CEO — stepped in as a part-time interim director in Winona. Soper has oveseen successful building projects in Onalaska and La Crosse. After he came onboard in Winona, “We decided to essentially start from scratch on the facility design,” he explained. Soper said the organization now has new designs for the facility. The Y released an artist’s rendering of the new building’s entrance last month, but Soper said he won’t be ready to release floor plans for the new facility for a couple more weeks. The Y’s facility planning committee incorporated previous member input when laying out the new design, he stated. “We believe we’re including all of those suggestions, ideas, and thoughts in the new design. We believe it’s thoughtful, well laid out, and sets the Y up for success over the next 50 years,” Soper said. He did announce that the new plans call for a 64,000-square-foot facility, which is significantly bigger than the 55,000-square-foot design Y leaders proposed in 2016. The current Y building is 72,000 square feet, but Y leaders have said that because of its inefficient layout much of that space is infrequently used and a smaller building with a better layout can provide just as much programming space.
For supporters, this project is about more than a building. The Winona YMCA has served the community for over 130 years, and in 2015, it had over 4,000 members, some 2,140 children took part in youth programs, and 1,111 members received some kind of financial assistance — from reduced price memberships to summer camp scholarships. The Y offers exercise classes tailored for older adults and free childcare for members. “We want to get where we’re serving 7,000-8,000 members in this community,” Soper stated. “We have high expectations for this Y.” He continued, describing his vision, “It’s going to be a thriving Y serving a large segment of the population, infants to seniors, tacking issues from chronic disease prevention to hunger.”
Soper said he appreciated the community’s patience with the project and was fully confident it will be completed. “The Winona community should be super proud of raising $12 million for the new Y. That’s an amazing milestone, and certainly this new facility is going to change this community,” he stated.
When Soper was brought in as interim CEO, how long the Winona YMCA Board would rely on the La Crosse YMCA CEO was an open question. “I think we’ve got a choice to say, ‘This is working well. We’re going to continue this,’ or hire a new executive,” Winona YMCA Board President Scott Hannon explained last summer. Asked if the Winona Y Board had discussed the issue, Soper said, “We really haven’t studied that yet. We’re really focused on getting this fundraising finished, the design finished, and this project underway.” Soper stated that, under national YMCA rules, management agreements between YMCAs are limited to 24 months in length. This September will be the halfway point for Winona and La Crosse’s contract. “Time is flying,” Soper said. “We’re happy to help in any way we can, and we’ll leave that decision to the Winona Y Board,” he added.
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated the new Y building would house Winona Health physical therapy sessions. The new building will house the entire Winona Health Rehabilitation Services department, including occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and more.