Membership and revenue have increased significantly since the YMCA merged its St. Louis and metro-east operations into Gateway Region YMCA two years ago, officials say.
Members such as Justin Ponder particularly like having access to all of its 24 locations. “Have gym bag, will travel” has become his motto.
Ponder, 30, of Belleville, travels throughout the region for his job as a U.S. Navy Special Operations scout. He keeps workout clothes in the car and pops into whichever YMCA location is closest for swimming, weight training or running.
“It’s seamless,” he said. “I have an app on my phone, and I sign in at the front desk by scanning in my barcode.”
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YMCA of Greater St. Louis merged in September 2015 with YMCA of Southwest Illinois, which included downtown Belleville, East Belleville, Clinton County (Breese), Collinsville Maryville Troy (Maryville), Monroe County (Columbia), O’Fallon and Randolph County (Red Bud) locations.
Ponder didn’t join Gateway until last May, after the merger. But access to multiple locations was a big selling point.
“Sometimes I go out to (Missouri job assignments) early, and if I don’t hit traffic, I can work out before work,” he said. “If I hit traffic, I just go after work.”
Merger discussions started in 2013, partly because the chief executive officer of YMCA of Southwest Illinois was leaving to take a job with YMCA of the USA, according to Tim Helm, current president and CEO.
The two boards felt they could improve overall efficiency and eliminate administrative redundancy by merging.
“They were asking, ‘Is there a better way to serve the community?’” Helm said. “It’s confusing for people to belong to a YMCA but not be able to go to other YMCA facilities.”
Since the merger, membership has grown from more than 42,000 families in 2015 (30,000 in Missouri and 12,000 in Illinois) to more than 50,000 families this year (37,000 and 13,000).
Membership fees were adjusted to achieve consistency, staying the same or decreasing slightly for 95 percent of members and increasing slightly for the rest, according to Megan VanDyke, digital communications and media manager.
They were asking, ‘Is there a better way to serve the community? It’s confusing for people to belong to a YMCA but not be able to go to other YMCA facilities.
Tim Helm on discussions about YMCA merger
Satisfaction surveys and verbal feedback show that members love having accessibility to all 24 locations, Helm said.
“No matter where you are in our region, you are near a ‘Y.’”
Some members go to different locations because of specific facilities, equipment or programs. There’s a skate park at the South City Family YMCA, a community theater at the Chesterfield Family YMCA and indoor and outdoor water parks at the Carondelet Park Rec Complex in St. Louis.
Three locations, including downtown Belleville and O’Fallon, have climbing towers. Some offer racquetball courts, indoor tracks, nature trails or community gardens.
Waterloo residents Rebekah and Matt Appelbaum drive to South County Family YMCA because their 19-year-old daughter, Katie, works there as a lifeguard, and their 13-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, performs with a dance team, plays on a volleyball league and takes gymnastics lessons.
“South County has a huge studio that’s mainly used for dance classes with professional dance teachers,” said Rebekah Appelbaum, 41. “They also have a gymnastics center with bars and beams.”
Rebekah and Matt Appelbaum still work out sometimes at the Monroe County YMCA, which is about 15 minutes closer to home.
But they’ve persuaded a few of their Monroe County friends to get involved in South County’s volleyball league.
“There’s a greater variety of girls, more teams, more organization and more experienced coaches,” Rebekah Appelbaum said.
Mike Byrne, 67, of New Baden, is one of Livestrong’s biggest fans. He got involved in January at East Belleville YMCA while undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer.
“Chemo zaps you,” he said. “It takes everything out of you. And the idea of this program is to build you back up, build up your strength and stamina so you can get along better with the chemo.
“It also helps with your appetite. You don’t want to eat with chemo. Everything tastes like cardboard.”
Byrne, a Navy retiree, worked out with a Livestrong personal trainer assigned to a group of six people with different kinds of cancer.
After participating for three months, Mike and his wife, Linda Byrne, joined as regular YMCA members in April. Today, they go to the fitness center three days a week.
Linda Byrne has been amazed at her husband’s progress. He used to struggle to get out of his chair and walk around the house. Now he can go shopping and run errands.
Chemo zaps you. It takes everything out of you. And the idea of this program is to build you back up, build up your strength and stamina so you can get along better with the chemo.
Mike Byrne on Livestrong at the YMCA program
Mike Byrne also feels more hopeful.
“It literally saved his life,” said Linda, 67, a retired teachers aide. “It was a godsend. It just changed his attitude. It gave him a better quality of life.”
The YMCA merger hasn’t been totally free of controversy. In July, Gateway administration fired downtown Belleville Director William Welch.
The move prompted Phillip Paeltz, the location’s Board of Managers chairman, to resign.
“(Williams) was an absolutely great local leader of a YMCA,” Paeltz said at the time. “If I understand this correctly, Belleville no longer has a local YMCA.”
Helm has been a YMCA employee for 29 years. Before coming to St. Louis, he oversaw a regional merger in Dayton, Ohio.
Helm considers the Gateway merger a big success. Beyond membership gains, revenue has increased from $64 million in 2014 to $73 million in 2016, according to figures from VanDyke.
“We’re serving more people,” Helm said. “We’re doing it more financially responsible, and we’ve been able to have a bigger impact on the community.
“There really hasn’t been any downside. It’s been really smooth and positive for the staff and the community.”