by CHRIS ROGERS
After considering a merger with the La Crosse YMCA, the Winona Family YMCA Board has decided to maintain its independence and hire a new CEO to be the face of the Winona Y and usher its new facility to completion.
“In a community of our size, the members look for that and the business community looks for that,” Winona YMCA Board member Vicki Decker said. “Who is the face of the Y? Well, it’s the CEO, whoever he or she may be.”
The Winona Y broke ground on its new, $14.5-million facility in partnership with Winona Health last fall and will begin construction in earnest this spring. Since the departure of the Winona Y’s last CEO in 2017, La Crosse Area Family YMCA CEO Bill Soper has filled in as the interim head of the Winona Y, guiding the major building project, overseeing local staff, and spending around two days a week in Winona.
The national YMCA limits the length of shared management agreements between YMCAs to one year, according to Winona Y Board Chair Scott Hannon. The Winona Y had already gotten an extension last year to allow Soper to continue leading the facility design, and the Winona board needed to make a decision soon about its long-term future.
Other major YMCAs around the state and country have merged, and the Winona YMCA Board considered merging with the La Crosse Y, but late last year, the board ultimately decided against it and began searching for a new, local CEO.
“We’ve been privileged to have Bill Soper working for us part-time during this transition period and it’s been a wonderful marriage, but of course, he has a full plate where he’s at,” Decker explained. “So we felt — for our Y and the new facility, and all of the time that’s going to take, and the marketing of the new facility — we really need someone in place locally. And we’ve always had our own director, so it continues that tradition.”
“I see the merits in a merger, but I see the pluses in having our own person,” Hannon said. “When you have a merger, your leadership is not quite as immersed in the community as you would like,” he explained. “You want someone who can go to Rotary, or go to Lions and Kiwanis [meetings], and play handball with some of the members,” Hannon stated. Soper is a great leader and has been valuable as an interim CEO, but he has two other YMCAs to run in Onalaska and La Crosse, Hannon explained. “If we could get someone who’s nearly as good as him, boy, we’d be very, very lucky,” he stated.
Hannon also explained that the La Crosse Y’s leadership was not comfortable investing in the Winona Y’s new facility because Winona Health will retain ownership of the land. The Y has a long-term lease with Winona Health. However, Hannon said that Winona Y leaders were confident the partnership with Winona Health is right for the Winona Y, and he stated that the Y and Winona Health have crafted legal agreements that will protect the Y regardless of what might happen decades from now.
A hiring committee that includes Y board members and a few Y members has already begun reviewing applicants for the new CEO. Based on what she has seen so far, Decker said, “I thought that we had several really highly qualified candidates.”
“First and foremost, this person is going to be the face of the Y, so they need to have that personality that they’re visible to the members and they’re visible to the community,” Decker stated. “They need to be able to manage a budget and they need to be able to manage people and programs.” The new CEO needs to be an able leader of capital campaigns and a solid manager who holds staff accountable while valuing their hard work, Hannon said. “They don’t need to walk on water, but they probably need to swim if we have a pool,” he joked.
Y leaders plan to invite finalists to Winona for in-person interviews and tours in March, and the board expects to make a hiring decision shortly thereafter and hopefully bring the new hire onboard by mid-April.
With a new leader coming in to finish off and open up a new facility, Decker said, “It’s an extremely exciting time for the Y. I think the board is really excited to have this person in place sooner rather than later and have them hit the bricks running.”
It is a unique opportunity, Hannon agreed. He recalled his own experience as principal when the new Winona Middle School opened. “It’s exciting to open up a new building and say, ‘Hey, look at what we’ve got.’” Hannon added, “We’d like to see new people enjoying the new Y.”
The new facility will be exciting for current members, too, Decker said. “Sometimes we get used to what we have and we don’t realize how really wonderful that new facility is going to be,” she stated.
Hannon said that construction crews hit a problem with stormwater drainage at the new Y site — a city storm sewer pipe underneath Parks Avenue needs to be replaced — that delayed site preparation last fall. However, he said that should not affect the overall construction schedule and that the new facility is still slated to open in early 2020.