Decision to close 'unsustainable' Eau Claire Y was tough, says head of YMCA Calgary

The permanent shutdown of the YMCA in Eau Claire has shaken members, with some saying it was their second home and more than a recreational centre.

Membership dropped from peak of 9,500 to just 1,300

The Calgary YMCA cites rising costs, financial pressures and a diminishing membership base as reasons for closing the Eau Claire facility, which is more than 30 years old. (Helen Pike/CBC)

The permanent shutdown of the YMCA in Eau Claire has shaken members, with some saying it was their second home and more than a recreational centre.

YMCA Calgary announced on its website Thursday that the organization had decided to close the Gray Family Eau Claire YMCA "after extensive due diligence by our senior leadership team, expert advisers, and after careful consideration by our board of directors."

The facility was built in 1987 and its membership had dropped from a peak of 9,500 to just 1,300.

"Since the downturn started in about 2015, the branch has seen a change that followed what's happened downtown," said Shannon Doram, president and CEO of YMCA Calgary.

"We have seen dropping membership, lower levels of impact than what we would like to be having. And as the building ages, obviously it requires more cash to continue to operate over the last few years. That combination has certainly made it unsustainable for us."

Doram says the recent openings of large YMCA facilities in the suburbs were not a factor in the closure.

"We've seen some impacts from the pandemic, for sure, but this is a problem that was persisting even before the new facilities came online," she said.

"I know this is a Y that is cherished by many and that's one of the wonderful things about the YMCA. For many years it has built community, and that is one of the things we hope to do long after the pandemic is gone and as the city recovers."

Doram says there are no immediate plans for the downtown facility.

Calgary urban development specialist Richard White says a number of factors have conspired in recent years to make it harder for the downtown YMCA to be sustainable. Those include the contraction of the oil and gas sector in the core and the proliferation of high-quality workout facilities in office buildings and condo towers.

"Young people, young professionals, they want to go to the boutique fitness centres that have the little cafes and the juice bars and so on. There's been a fragmentation of the whole sort of fitness and recreation business," he said.

White said the Eau Claire location, too, has become less desirable as redevelopment plans at the adjacent market failed to come to fruition while the East Village several blocks to the east blossomed into a vibrant community.

"It's just unfortunate that the nature of downtown is that there's always some communities that are on the rise and some that are on the decline," he said. 

The YMCA says the child-care facility at Eau Claire will remain open until April 30.

Members, volunteers react

Lyle Watson says he joined the Eau Claire YMCA right when it opened in 1988.

"It's hard to see it go. I sort of saw it coming in the last couple of years with the downtown being less and less and … the economy hurting," he said.

He says while he understands the decision, it will be hard to see the place go.

Lyle Watson, a YMCA member for more than 30 years, says not only will he miss the facility, but also the people he built connections with over the years. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"I think part of it is the people, you know, you miss all the people.… I had tons and tons of relationship with people for the last 30 years. So it's hard but you move on."

He says the Y had become part of his daily routine since he lives in the area and would attend the Y with his kids as they grew up.

"It was my other home," he said.

Another Eau Claire YMCA member, Andrew Ng, says he found community there as well as a place to play and volunteer.

Now, he says, he is at a loss.

"Back when I moved to Calgary in 2013, one of the first places I Iooked for was a place to play basketball," he said.

After joining the Eau Claire Y, Ng says he joined a pickup game, which quickly became a weekly routine.

"Basically, from that morning for the past seven years … I would be there playing (basketball) with the same group of guys," he said.

His frequent attendance led to him volunteering and coaching kids basketball at the facility.

"Where am I going to do any volunteer now because it was such an interesting, fun part of my week," he said.

"On top of that, where are the kids going to go cause it's not just basketball. It's badminton, summer camps, swimming lessons."

He says it was also a more affordable option for families looking to bring their kids somewhere to play.

"There were some families that were recent immigrants that were looking for a place.… I can't imagine how helpful that was for parents to get out of the house and see the community," he said.

"It all just hit me, and you know, this is just such a huge shame."

With files from Helen Pike


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