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YMCA leader steps down (03/10/2013)
By Sarah Squires

Photo by Sarah Squires
     Andy Blomsness, Winona YMCA Executive Director for 28 years, announced he will retire this year.
For decades, it has been his second home—the pungent smell of chlorine wafting from the pools, the clank of lockers swinging shut as locals get ready to hit the gym. He has navigated the halls of the Winona YMCA since his first job at the facility brought him to town in the '70s. He has overseen capital campaigns that have rejuvenated and updated the well-loved building, and led the charge as programming and services have evolved over the years to serve anyone who walks through the door.

In many ways, Andy Blomsness is the face of fitness in Winona. Though he has announced his upcoming retirement from the YMCA executive director position he has held for 28 years, Blomsness is saving his goodbyes. While he will no longer lead the organization, his ties will remain strong as he stays on as a volunteer and prepares to head potential efforts to relocate the Y. (See adjacent story.)

Blomsness grew up in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He took a part-time job at the Eau Claire YMCA while in school, and quickly realized it was something he loved. After college, he took a job as a YMCA program director in Indianapolis, then headed to Winona and another program director position in 1974 to be closer to home. He and his wife moved to Monroe, Wis. in 1982, where he helped lead a capital campaign and build a brand new YMCA in that community. By 1985, former Winona YMCA Executive Director Jim Anderson was ready to retire, and the Winona YMCA Board called Blomsness and encouraged him to apply for the position. "Twenty eight years later, 39 years in YMCA work, and here I am," he said with a smile.

YMCA evolves

When Blomsness first came to Winona, 75 percent of the YMCA members were men. There were about four classes offered, and most exercises were simple calisthenics. In the 1970s, exercise classes began being choreographed to music and evolving.

"Now, we have probably 46 [classes] from yoga to pilates and turbo kicking and body pump—there's just so much more out there," explained Blomsness.

When the current YMCA building was first erected in 1951, it served about 800 members. By the time Blomsness took his post, the membership had grown to about 1,800. The building was not accessible to people with disabilities, however, and Blomsness soon worked on the capital campaign "Wave of the Future." The money raised funded a new swimming pool, the construction of a new wheelchair accessible entrance, a special needs locker room and elevator, along with an aerobic studio and wellness center.

The efforts reaped new members—up to 3,000—and in 2003 the YMCA changed to "single tier" membership packages. The result was that all members had equal access to the facilities and classes, and there were no extra charges for classes or other offerings. Another result is that the YMCA needed more space.

The needed renovation soon came with another successful capital campaign in 2003. This time, the locker rooms were renovated, the wellness center was expanded from 2,000 to 5,000 square feet, and the entrance on Fourth Street was added. As soon as the new space was added, membership again swelled to 4,300. "Then, we kind of ran out of space," said Blomsness.

Today, membership at the YMCA is evenly split between men and women, and family memberships have grown. "It has become truly a family Y," explained Blomsness, in part due to the addition of after school and summer care for kids, which are always well attended. With increased accessibility, Blomsness said more and more people are able to become involved with the Y. "Now, that's a pretty big part of what we do," he said.

The financial assistance program has been formalized and expanded over the years under Blomsness' leadership, as well. When he first started at the YMCA, Blomsness said the program was "on the fly." Now, the program has grown and last year helped 1,170 individuals receive membership benefits representing $195,000 in funding.

The fastest-growing membership segment has been the senior population, and Blomsness said part of the popularity of the YMCA in general is due to a culture shift in which people and the community value health and wellness more than ever before.

"There are far more health-seekers now," explained Blomsness. "Everybody is kind of realizing we have to do something. It's out there—it's not a secret—how good it is to exercise and eat right."

The future

"I think that the future is really great for an organization like the Y, because our market is getting bigger," Blomsness said.

When he looks ahead, Blomsness said he anticipates a growing collaboration between the YMCA and other health organizations in efforts that are intended to help make families and the community more healthy. That could mean programming such as diabetes prevention, weight management, living strong with cancer, and nutrition programs that help teach families and children how to eat more healthful foods.

There is mounting pressure from a variety of sources for people to recognize the value of a healthy lifestyle. From health care costs, to personal well-being, the country needs to get healthy more than ever before, he said. "If you have a chronic disease like heart disease or diabetes, it affects everything," said Blomsness. "I see the Y's role as being critical in the development of good habits. [We'd like to continue and enhance our work] collaborating with schools and other organizations, because we're all in this together, and we all have to work together."

As Blomsness looks ahead to his retirement, he said he expects to do a lot more of the things he loves—biking, hunting, golfing and traveling—as well as helping out at the YMCA as a volunteer. He will keep taking the stationary bike "spinning" class he enjoys, and he will remain close to his YMCA family.

"The Y has been a great career for me because my kids grew up here," he said. "They started at six months old doing Aqua Babies, and then eventually worked here, too."

Blomsness said it will be hard to clean out his office after decades behind his antique desk, but that change is good, too. "The nice thing is that I'll still be here," he said.  


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