Its closure has long been discussed as part of the plan for a nice new fitness facility, but now the South Park Street YMCA’s last days have arrived, and the community that’s grown up with the Y for the last 61 years is just starting to face the loss.
by Stephanie Johns and Allison Saunders
photos by Curtis Rothney
There’s a particular sense of disappointment when something you know is going to happen—something you’ve been dreading for a while —finally happens. On March 4, the YMCA South Park location announced that they’d be closing their doors for good on May 30, and rebuilding a new facility where the CBC Radio building is located, to open sometime in 2017. The plan was in the works for a while, and it’s no secret the building is old—61 years old, in fact. Imagine it’s the good old days when people could retire at 65; now imagine the YMCA as a soon-to-be snowbird, counting off the days on the desk calendar until it accepts the gold watch and hauls out the golf bag.
But knowing the inevitable had to happen doesn’t change the fact that the city is about to lose an important landmark, meeting place and heart of a community, at least for the next three years.
YMCA South Park president and chief executive officer Bette Watson-Borg explains that the YMCA is more than any one physical location. “The YMCA in Canada has a program delivery model that’s a combination of having outlets like the Y, the building and facility, as well as outreach in schools, the community and in the streets,” she says. For this change, the YMCA board was “really looking at investing in capital renewal, and looking at how will we renew downtown.”
Obviously, building a new facility can’t happen overnight. “It’s been formally on the board agenda for the last decade. It’s a long-term thing, capital renewal needs a long-term approach,” says Watson-Borg. “It really is a journey. It involves many people—volunteers, donors, different levels of government, to bring it to fruition. The Y wants to focus on how the community can be involved, and how to build something to be proud of.”
But for the last little while, the building has been somewhat of a hurtin’ unit. Stepping into the cardio room this month—nothing like burning a few hundred calories while watching Fresh Prince reruns—you may have seen packing tape holding together an elliptical trainer, the water fountain handle replaced by a mini vise clamp or “for sale” signs on some of the equipment. “We will relocate some of the newer equipment to the Dartmouth Y,” Watson-Borg says. “We’re not in business of selling stuff, so we’re getting a broker to sell it so we can maximize our resources.”
The most important question, though, is what will happen to the people who have made the Y work for as long as it has—the volunteers and employees. The popular child-care program has already moved its services to St. Thomas Aquinas Church in the west end, but what about everyone else? Though the YMCA promises support, there’s little that can be done about the loss of jobs. The new YMCA won’t be open until 2017, and at that point, former employees of the South Park branch (seven full-time and 30 part-time staff) are “encouraged to apply.”
“The Y is absolutely committed to supporting the employees,” says Watson-Borg. “We’re working on a case-by-case basis based on their needs.”
“The fact that they’ve kept this aging facility open and clean speaks to their ability and we’re working to support them through this transition. They’ve been tremendous and are very much appreciated.”
It’s a necessary evil. The old Y has to close before the new one can open, and inevitably, “there will be a disruption,” says Watson-Borg.
“Once we made the announcement we worked proactively with the volunteers—the majority of our group classes are led by talented volunteers—discussing what classes could be relocated to different locations, and what’s possible to be held at the Community Y on Gottingen. There’s recently been a half million dollars in renovations there.”
The YMCA and the CBC have been in collaboration for about five years discussing some kind of joint development with their neighbouring South Park Street buildings. In March 2012, city council approved a plan for the site, and both sites will be developed together —the CBC Radio building will become the new YMCA facility location (a 70,000 square foot facility) as well as a residential site, and the YMCA building will be turned into a 165,000 square foot mixed-use development, likely being used for retail and living space.
Watson-Borg explains the swanky new facility will have the capacity to serve 6,500 health and wellness members (the current Y has 1,500 members), and will feature a multi-tank aquatic complex with a hydrotherapy pool, a teaching pool and a group class pool with a moveable floor. There will be an indoor track, fitness and wellness studios, cardio training space and a garden. The project is estimated to cost $22 million. Watson-Borg says the developer will be announced later this month and fundraising efforts are planning to be put in motion after the YMCA has closed.
This sophisticated new YMCA will be the fourth building in the Halifax Y’s evolution. Fred Honsberger knows the Y from all angles: He’s a longtime member, former president, board member and trustee, and historian who’s been digging deep into the YMCA’s colourful, impactful past. “I think the whole thing is to think positive, because we have this new Y to look forward to, but I can do that because I have this history,” he says. “It’s easy for me. It’s part of the evolution. It’s just a tired building way past its best before date. It’s gone through an awful lot already.”
Honsberger says the Halifax YMCA began as an alternative for young people in 1853, operating out of rented rooms on Hollis Street for the first years of its life. It wasn’t until 1874 that it put up its own building— a place for reading, lectures and bible study on the corner of Barrington, Prince and Granville Streets. But after 37 years there, growth in population and a community need for indoor recreation urged the Halifax YMCA’s second location into existence.
In 1912 the Barrington Street Y (the current home of Chives and company) went up, boasting a pool, gymnasium, track, dorms, classrooms and reading rooms, bowling alley and cafeteria. It was a giant leap from its previous location, and an important refuge for soldiers, but after 35 years, two World Wars and the Depression, it was past due for another stage of metamorphosis. That’d be the the South Park YMCA, Halifax’s first million-dollar charity campaign, that had an army of 600 volunteers fundraising. Similar to the Y-less limbo we’re facing now, there was a four-year span between Barrington’s closure and South Park’s debut, during which members were displaced between 19 different locations and facilities across town.
The “new” YMCA opened on South Park Street on April 26, 1953. Double the size of its predecessor, it was packing 74 residence rooms, an eight-lane bowling alley, gymnasium, meeting rooms, chapel, restaurant and pool. It was the answer to the baby boom. “From the moment it was built, it was just a hive of activity for kids and teenagers,” says Honsberger. South Park zeroed in its focus on young people, and its teen programs and clubs, like Hi-Y and Twix Teen, were some of the largest in Canada. Clearly, the city was crying out for it.
“The YMCA has always been at the leading edge of community need,” says Honsberger. “The programs at the Y morph in response to community need, and when that need has been met by the community they seem to phase out.”
In its 61 years, the South Park YMCA has grown with the people who go there, undergoing two major renovations and reworking its programs and services to reflect its community. Every one of the South Park YMCA’s members, volunteers and staff has a Y story. They’re people who’ve grown up attending classes, met new friends, put their families through school, bettered themselves or just gone to let off steam. They’ve watched it change, improve and decay, and still loved it like only a mother would.
It’s hard to imagine the same the level of public outcry and collective mourning if a branch of a corporate health club announced it was closing tomorrow. Sure, it’s possible to make friends anywhere, but there’s something about the atmosphere of the Y that practically guarantees it. That warm and fuzzy feeling has lasted through three iterations of the YMCA in downtown Halifax, and hopefully the scrappy spirit can continue even in a shiny new package.
Four stories—not eulogies, more like parting gifts—describe this unique feeling and provide inspiration and direction for the next chapter.
Share your Y story in the comments section at the bottom of the page
The “Early Morning Group” is a tight knit group of loyal YMCA devotees who have been meeting at 7am for the past 30 or so years to work out together, have fun, help one another and “solve the world’s problems over coffee.” Led by instructor Suzanne McDonough, the crew is a heartwarming example of the power of friendship.
Pictured, from left to right, Fadwa Awad, Terry Davis, Emily Williamson, Rhonda Newcombe, Suzanne McDonough, Diana Burns, Thelma Johnston, June Cook, Brenda Murray, Gina MacDonald, half of the Early Morning Group.
The following quotes are excerpted from a group conversation with Diana Burns, Gina MacDonald, Fadwa Awad, Rhonda Newcombe, June Cook and Suzanne McDonough.
“A good 30 years ago we decided we wanted a 7am class, in those days, early bird classes weren’t something they were really introducing. It became really popular, people could work out and get to work by 9.”
“We also go hiking at Cape Split once a year, we have a great lunch—and take everything that is very necessary for a good lunch.”
“We have an annual panty draw at Christmas. We put our names in an envelope, draw name and buy a pair for that person. It’s an absolute hoot.”
“This group has gone through everything… births, deaths, divorce, upset, just everything.”
“We can solve the problems of the world after class over our coffee.”
“We could run this city, no problem.”
“We really fit the “mind body spirit” motto of the Y. We’ve become a family.”
“I come for the exercise but also the camaraderie. We’ve all gone through various things, so when we sit on the couches we’re able to open up to each other as well.”
“This is home, and we feel in limbo now. It’s a strange feeling.”
“Everybody knew the closure was coming, but it was just so quick. I think it’s hard for the people in the boardroom to figure out what’s really happening down here.”
“About six years ago I came here, I was going through some things in my life and these ladies were sitting here and I asked, ‘can I have a cup of coffee?’ And Suzanne said ‘sit down! Don’t just have a cup, join us, talk to us!’ They didn’t have to, but they invited me in to join them, that’s the difference.”
“If anyone needs us, we will listen, if anyone has a problem, you know you can talk to someone. At other facilities people work out, they go home—this is so much more.”
“I joined when my marriage broke up in September 1985. He walked out the door and I walked into the Y. It’s what saved me, the group supported me. Everyone was there for me but Suzanne was especially and I’ll never forget that.”
“There are people here that’ve known each other I’m sure for 25 years, and if you ask them what that person did for a living they wouldn’t know, because they wouldn’t care. All they care about is who you are. And that’s kind of nice.”
—Fred Honsberger, member since 1975
the day shift
Originally from the Philippines, Amy Hunt moved to Halifax in 1995 and started working at the YMCA in 2006. As team leader in membership and sales, she’s the friendly face you’d see weekday mornings at the front desk and calls the Y her second home.
I came here to Canada as a nanny, to help my family back home. I graduated as an elementary teacher but in the Philippines the salary isn’t enough. There are seven of us in the family so I was able to help my brothers and sisters go to college, and help build their home. In September 2006 I started a part time job in the Y’s maintenance department. It was perfect for me because I could be home with my kids on the weekdays and work on the weekend.
A year after there was an opening in the front desk so I applied, I got it and I started full time. It actually reminded me of back home. Our home always had people coming in and out. I’m a people person. We were raised to be always be surrounded by people.The members, I got to know them and developed some relationships with them. We became a family in this space.
I think the Y is very important because to have a strong community you will have a healthy community. I’ve met a lot of different types of people here and learned to know how important it is to have a place to go, to keep them from doing something different. It’s a place you can always come in and be accepted no matter who you are. I will miss the people, the members, the most. I know most of them, I know their schedules, we talk about their problems, we talk about what’s going on and I’d like to thank all of them. When we had the typhoon back home and we got hit, they were there for me. As soon as they found out my family was affected they were very supportive, even financially they were there to help me. It’s not just because they’re generous people but because they have heart.
It’s kind of hard to know the Y is closing but at the same time, it’s only the building so the relationships I’ve developed will stay. The idea of losing your second home is hard. Most of the members spend most of their days here, especially those who are retired. They come here early and they don’t leave until noon, so this is a big part of their time. Their home is just a resting place, this is where they have their life. That’s what I’ll miss, seeing them every morning.
Transition is always difficult, but sometimes change is good. I can’t tell if this is good yet. When one door closes another opens, as long as you are ready and looking. So far I am trying to look for a job. God is good, he will supply my needs, he will provide.
“People always ask me why the Y? And I instinctually says it’s because of the pool. And for the most part that is true, but for me it’s because I’ve always felt comfortable being a member of that organization. I like the fact that they don’t refuse anyone their services. It’s important to feel comfortable in the place where you’re trying to better yourself because it can be a really vulnerable experience. I always liked the flaws in the building because those flaws can be seen in all of us and that’s what makes it feel like home, like a family.”
—Samantha Twohig, member since 2006
the night shift
Ricky Talbot has been working the backshift at the YMCA since 1983 as assistant facility manager. Though he often worked alone in the wee hours, Talbot cites the community of the Y as one of the reasons the job was rewarding.
I started in 1983 in June. I used to be customs broker and got laid off, so I was planning on taking summer off. I used to work at Y in 1970 volunteering with a youth group called Our Gang and one of the guys in the group became the facility manager [for the South Park YMCA]. I was walking down the street, and saw him, he asked what I was doing for the summer. I said I was looking for work and he hired me on. It wasn’t something that I was planning on doing—I went to university. But I started on the night shift, all by myself, working in the maintenance department. I had to know how to do it all. I used to take notes and keep a diary about what happened every day—up until eight years ago. It would just be about anything that happened: if it was snowing, or I got in argument with the snowplow guy, if a boiler broke down, if there was a flood and who I called, if someone give me praise—just anything. I bought a new daily journal every year, near the end I just started writing on foolscap.
Fifty percent was cleaning and 50 percent was fixing things. When I started there was no equipment, only free weights. I remember when we got our first treadmill in I thought, ‘wow look how big this thing is.’ I had to read up on it to learn how to fix it.
I still felt the community feeling, we used to have meetings in the day time, and I was part of committees. The management was good, if you did well they’d reward you and let you know. I met a lot of people through my appearance – when I first started I had short hair. People would comment on how long my hair was getting and my glasses.
I’ve been working 32 years of the night shift, half my life. I really don’t know what I’ll do next. In a couple of months I’ll be 65… it’s not the way I wanted to retire. I guess I’ll take a couple weeks off in June, I’m going to enjoy myself, then update my resume.
“This place is going to be missed”
Policy analyst by day, aquafit maestro by night, Hugh Gillis has been a volunteer instructor at the YMCA since 1987. He’s taught fitness classes in Halifax, New Glasgow and Windsor, on land and in the water, but his heart belongs to the South Park Y’s pool. With any luck, Gillis’ lively evening classes will carry on at Centennial Pool.
I moved here in January of 1982. I graduated from university in ’81 and spent a few months at home in New Brunswick and then got a job offer in Halifax. I belonged to the Y in New Brunswick for a few months and I didn’t know anyone so I started going to the Y here. I swam a bit in university and came to go to the pool, and my brother was living here and attending fitness classes so he got me going to some.
Around 1986 one of the instructors said, “There’s a course coming up for teaching fitness classes, have you thought about taking it?” Me? Are you kidding? She said, “You should think about it, you have good technique, good skills and good spirit.” I took the course in the spring of 1987, May 1987. I finished it and someone approached me at the Y and asked, “Do you want to teach aquafit?” I had no idea what it was, it was a whole new world, and I did it. This coming August it’ll be my 28th year of teaching…somewhere, hopefully.
There are people who started coming to class from the first classes I taught. It’s been fascinating to see them, to see us, mature. We’ve gotten a little older all together. Some folks have had kids, and the kids have come, one or two women came before they were pregnant, when they were pregnant, and their kids are now grown up and off on their own. Some of those folks have become long-term acquaintances, and friends, who celebrate events together.
I started thinking about what I see happen at the Y. I’ve seen people come to an aquafit class who aren’t comfortable in water, who’ve started in the shallow end, held onto the wall, get a little confidence and eventually move into the deep end. I’ve seen the confidence they get from accomplishing that. And the friendships I see—there are a couple people in class who meet afterwards and sit in the lobby and knit. It’s those connections you have that are fascinating. Anybody can go to the Y, it welcomes all ages, its not just buff gym bodies, it’s people with different body shapes, different ages, abilities, income levels and they all feel pretty darn comfortable there.
People come to class and you don’t know their situation, or what it means to them. It gives a focus to do something, be active, clear their mind, say hi to someone, start a conversation. It’s those little things that have impacted me.
I’m going to miss the Y desperately. I drove by this morning and thought I wish they’d tear it down as soon as it’s empty because I don’t want to walk by it when it’s still up and think, if only I could be in there.
I just wonder will we all be together again in three years time? Or, who of us will be?
A phrase from the Y a number of years ago was you can go anywhere but you belong to the Y. I see that. It’s that real connection of community. It’s that intangible thing you experience. I don’t know, it’s just something about the Y.
“I’m going to miss the Y desperately.”
“It really is a journey. It involves many people—volunteers, donors, different levels of government, to bring it to fruition. The Y wants to focus on how the community can be involved, and how to build something to be proud of.”
YMCA South Park president and chief executive officer Bette Watson-Borg