{By Luke Jones; Originally published June 30, 2012}

In a fitness-obsessed country with dozens of different health clubs and gyms available in every city, one institution is struggling to maintain its identity and relevance: the YMCA.

When David Simpson was young, Y employees taught swimming lessons at a local lake. In high school he helped the Y with day camps and watched children perform archery, fire BB guns, jump on trampolines and play basketball. As a parent, he and his daughter experienced the Y's Indian Guides program.

"It allowed me to do a lot of things," Simpson said. He has served on the board of the YMCA of Metropolitan Little Rock since 1988.

In its heyday, the Y had seven facilities of various sizes around Little Rock. In 2012, it has none. (Click here for a sidebar on the restoration of one of Little Rock's original facilities.)

The last two closed in 2011: North Little Rock's Heflin Branch shut down in March and the Westside Y on Sam Peck Road was closed in December. The latter seemed like a finishing blow to the organization.

According to board members, it has been a gradual decline. The Y's membership had been falling for years, and the organization was spinning its wheels in a financial rut.

Tedd Maxfield was executive director of the Westside Y and lost his job when it closed. He said when he was hired, the YMCA was receiving only about 35 percent of its revenue from membership dues, a number that was too low to properly maintain the buildings. Revenue not derived from membership dues came from grants, donations and program fees.

"We didn't have the money to keep upgrading facilities," said Paul Henry, chairman of the Y board. "It was kind of a downward spiral from that aspect."

According to forms 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the Little Rock YMCA in 2007 reported $1.8 million in revenue and $2 million in expenses. During the next two years, expenses stayed the same but revenue dropped. The Y reported having lost $530,356 in 2009.

Falling revenue meant the Y didn't have money to improve its aging equipment. Members packed up and moved to newer, shinier gyms with low price tags, like 10 Fitness, a chain that started in North Little Rock in 2007.

"In my opinion, they didn't reinvest in their clubs," said Eric Butler, owner and founder of 10 Fitness. "When you go to some markets - Memphis comes to mind - the facilities are amazing. Here, when I'm talking to people that were members of the Y, they had the same equipment in there for decades."

Butler said 10 Fitness considered the Y a competitor, but only moderately, and he felt his business' presence was a small part of the organization's downfall.

"We may have contributed a little bit," he said. "But they decided a while back that this wasn't a market where they would constantly reinvest and improve. That catches up with you."

It wasn't just 10 Fitness that sponged up the Y's departing members, though: It was everyone.

"They dispersed depending on what their individual needs were," Maxfield said. "People who just wanted a treadmill, some of them have gone to the small private clubs. Some who were interested in swimming, they have continued it at Centers for Youth & Families. Some folks continue in group exercise programs, and many have continued those programs in other locations. Many are now located in the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ."

"Over time, cities built recreation centers, senior adult facilities, fitness centers," David Simpson said. "The Y brought soccer to the state of Arkansas, but there are many places that offer soccer now. And churches built recreation facilities. I think all of those things added to it. Over time, the Y wasn't able to keep its facilities up. The city can maintain its own facilities, other places can start something new and fresh, but we just got behind the 8 ball in a way."

These factors all led to the closing of the Metropolitan Y facilities.

"I think we tried everything we knew what to do," Simpson said. "It just didn't work out for us."

Click here for a sidebar on YMCAs in other parts of Arkansas.


The Little Rock Y still exists as an organization. It has an office, a board of directors and a collection of ongoing programs. Now it faces the task of rebuilding itself from the ground up.

"Nowadays, really, the mission of the Y has kind of been lost," said Chairman Paul Henry. "People are familiar with the name, but they don't understand what the Y does. One of our goals is to continue, going forward, educating on the mission of the Y."

"The mission, really, is to help people grow in spirit, mind and body," Maxfield said, "to be better people. The values I mentioned are at the heart of that growth, and the Y programs really try to conduct with those values instilled, and try to instill them into the participants. We want people to be better as a result of participating."

Henry said the Y works to provide opportunities for children and families who have few opportunities elsewhere.

"Right now I think there's a big wellness desert in the central part of the city," he said.

So while promoting its purpose, the Y continues to offer programs like youth soccer and Adventure Guides, the updated Indian Guides program.

Maxfield said the YMCA was also working on programs to address difficult issues like childhood obesity, malnutrition and diabetes. Even in difficult times, Maxfield said, it's important to continue the Y's work in the community.

"It's scary what's ahead of us," Maxfield said. "It's going to be disastrous if we don't change the way we live. That's what it all comes to. The health care system can't handle the illnesses that are just staring us down the barrel."

Meanwhile, Maxfield and others feel the YMCA can rebuild itself.

"If you go back to our roots in 1885, that's not so different from how we started," Maxfield said, referring to the Y's lack of facilities when it began in Little Rock.

"I think there's a place for the YMCA in central Arkansas," said Jay Heflin, a board member and son of Sharon Heflin, after whom the Heflin Branch was named. "I truly believe that. There are a lot of decisions to make. I believe the Y will be present in central Arkansas in the future, but I'm not 100 percent sure what that will look like."

"The main thing is to keep your Y operating in the black," said board member David Simpson. "We can slowly start rebuilding and gaining some headway in the community. We need a resurgence to come back and have a strong impact on the community."


One piece of the Little Rock YMCA's history is enjoying a renaissance of its own.

The 1928 YMCA building on the corner of Broadway and Sixth Street sat vacant for more than a decade before it was purchased by Brad and Shellie Barnett in 2010.

The Barnetts are restoring the building as both a living space and an office for Brad Barnett's Nationwide Insurance agency.

Shellie Barnett said she fell in love with the building after seeing its period d├ęcor, including a central plaza, relief sculptures and intricate tile work.

Some of the building's space will be leased out for retail, and one area is being renovated for a Tropical Smoothie Cafe scheduled to open in the spring. As time goes on, the Barnetts hope, more businesses can open inside.

Shellie Barnett said she had passions for green building and the resurrection of downtown Little Rock. The work that she and Brad do on the Y, she said, represents the realization of those dreams.

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The YMCA of Metropolitan Little Rock may be a shadow of its former self, but that doesn't mean the Y has disappeared all across the state.

Two YMCAs in particular are expanding.

Jenny Holweger is the CEO of the Tri-State Family YMCA, a group of three Ys that operate in Rogers, Neosho, Mo., and Grove, Okla.

The Rogers branch recently opened a 44,000-SF facility, Holweger said, boasting two racquetball courts, a fitness studio and a cardio and stress training area, with more planned down the line.

"We've got a real strong partnership with Mercy Hospital," Holweger said. "Without them this wouldn't be possible. I think that was a big part of the facility opening."

A Y's success depends on the leadership of its board and executives, Holweger said, as well as its relationships with people.

"The Y has survived since 1844," Holweger said. "Part of that is being able to adapt to the community, really finding out what people's needs are and trying to fill gaps that aren't there. You try not to duplicate programs that are out there. You foster something different."

Another Y enjoying prosperity is in Warren in Bradley County. CEO Randall Herring said the Warren Y had been around since 1918. Warren is a town with few fitness options - the nearest gym is in Monticello, Herring said - so the Y has often served as a community anchor.

A big break came in 2006 when a Donald W. Reynolds Foundation grant provided funds to refurbish the town's old Y building, upgrading it to include youth sports facilities, two adult fitness centers, cardio resistance training equipment and free weights.

The Y has its own pool and swim team, Herring said, and the team has grown from 18 members to more than 60 in the last three years, with some members last year qualifying for the Junior Olympics.

"That was really quite an accomplishment for us, and we're hoping it grows more," Herring said.

Herring said the Y's philosophy was what makes it important.

"I always try to emphasize this," he said. "The YMCA is at its heart a Christian organization, and I think that's the thing that sets it apart from other recreational organizations. We try to live that here to the best of our ability. It's been here for a long, long time, it's had a tremendous impact on the community and there are high expectations from the community on what we do here."

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