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Under the weight of the COVID-19 crisis, an already struggling local facility may not be able to hold off the economic impact of a global pandemic.
As other regional YMCA locations have reopened to members, a Friday, May 22, letter to its members posted on its Facebook page calls into question the future of Bolivar’s Y.
“Moving forward as we continue to navigate this situation, we are evaluating all facets of our Ozarks Regional YMCA association,” Kathryn Custer, chief executive officer, says in the post. “At this time, a decision has not been made on reopening the Roy Blunt YMCA of Bolivar.”
The Y discontinued automatic monthly membership payments this month. Members have the option to transfer to another YMCA location, as well, the post states.
Bolivar’s YMCA closed its doors Wednesday, March 18.
Custer thanks the community for its patience as the Y navigates “these unprecedented times while caring for our community.”
“It has been an unpredictable and ever-changing situation for everyone, and we appreciate you staying with us,” Custer says. “At the Ozarks Regional YMCA, everything we do is guided by our commitment to support our community, and this is even more critical now.”
Custer says the new coronavirus “has created enormous uncertainty.”
“Thank you very much for your continued support, and we appreciate your past participation and we encourage you to keep healthy and active,” Custer says.
She says the organization will communicate with members again once a final decision is made.
Brandi Prock, who’s listed as the executive director of both the Lebanon and Bolivar branches on the organization’s website, did not respond to questions — including requests for information on the status of the Y’s employees, a timeline of when a final decision will be made and insight into the situation considering the Y’s recent history — by press time Tuesday.
In an email Tuesday afternoon, Ozarks Regional YMCA Director of Marketing and Communications Julie Eaton said Custer's statement “is all the information we have available” at this time.
“We will continue to be guided by our mission to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all, and we will communicate with you again once a final decision is made,” Eaton said.
The struggle is real
Custer’s statement comes after the City of Bolivar recently announced it wouldn’t open the Bolivar Aqua Zone, which is attached to the YMCA building, for the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Eaton said she wanted to remind the community "that the Bolivar Aqua Zone and the Roy Blunt YMCA of Bolivar are operated separately."
"The Aqua Zone is owned by the City of Bolivar and has been operated by the city since September of 2013," Eaton said.
The decision to keep the local Y closed for the time being also comes a year after Bolivar YMCA leadership spoke up about the organization’s financial concerns and looked to the community for help.
News of the Y’s struggle with $1.6 million in debt and $2.3 million in operating losses over 11 years broke in April 2019.
At the time, Bolivar YMCA’s Paula Shepard said the debt load — which carries a $20,000 monthly payment with increasing interest rates — was a constant concern.
In an open board of advisors meeting in June 2019, Shepard was blunt about the dire situation at hand.
“The executive board gave us until the end of June to come up with $1.6 million or a plan of how we’re going to get there, and we’re not there,” she said. “We have three weeks. It’s crunch time.”
The deadline came after the Ozark Regional YMCA executive board commissioned an assessment study through the Haralson Group in August 2018.
The study recommended leadership “put into place significant changes within the next six months or develop a plan to close the facility by the end of 2019.”
In the middle of a five-year profitability plan, the Bolivar Y instituted several changes over time, including increased rates, reduced hours and closed classes.
Shepard previously said even if the building, located at 1710 W. Broadway St., doesn’t stay in the Y’s hands, there’s hope the organization won’t disappear from the community altogether.
“I don’t think, from the feedback I get from (the regional executive board), that we wouldn’t have a presence and programs,” Shepard said. “For example, we’ve talked about, should we sell the building? If we sold the building, we wouldn’t pack up and leave town.”
Shepard said a possibility might be reducing programs and moving the Y to a storefront.
She said when the Y initially opened in Bolivar in the early 2000s, it was housed in a storefront and hosted “group exercise classes, had seven or eight cardio machines and had Kid Zone.”
During the June meeting last year, Shepard said she had one inquiry from an outside group interested in purchasing the current building.
Although nothing’s set in stone, Shepard previously said “there is decision-making going on at every turn.”
“We hope we have a strategic plan to be successful,” she added. “But, a plan is just a plan.”
*Editor's note: This article was updated at around 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, with comments from Julie Eaton, the Ozarks Regional YMCA director of marketing and communications.