‘A wake-up call’: Eau Claire YMCA closure another blow to Calgary’s inner city

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One city councillor says the closure of Calgary’s only centrally located YMCA should be a “wake-up call” about the need to invest in the struggling downtown.

YMCA Calgary announced Thursday that the Gray Family YMCA in Eau Claire will permanently close, citing “challenges in the downtown environment” that were a problem well before the COVID-19 pandemic forced recreation centres to shut their doors.

Shannon Doram, YMCA Calgary president and CEO, said a decade ago the Eau Claire YMCA was a “bustling” facility, with as many as 10,500 members at its peak. She said about half of that membership was made of downtown workers who would come to exercise before or after work, but go to a different YMCA close to where they lived on weekends.

But as tough economic times have hollowed out Calgary’s downtown, with upwards of a quarter of the office towers sitting empty, membership at the downtown YMCA dropped to just 1,300. That’s less than 15 per cent of the attendance it once saw.

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“When you layer in the changes we’ve seen in the downtown over time … that further impacted the number of people coming through our doors at the YMCA,” Doram said.

“That’s a function of the changing nature of downtown, of work, of a whole bunch of different things.”

Coun. Druh Farrell, whose Ward 7 includes Eau Claire and much of the downtown, said Friday that the YMCA has a right to decide what to do with facilities it owns, and how best to manage its organization.

But she sees the Eau Claire centre’s closure as a symptom of a bigger Calgary problem.

“The downtown YMCA closing should act as a wake-up call for the need for change,” she said.

Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell says established, high-density areas of the city have been “neglected.”

“I think it speaks to a bigger issue of how we’ve neglected established areas and our core for decades. You just need to look at the budget to know where our priorities lie, and it’s about building new. It’s about growth while we’ve been neglecting what we already have.”

Some have called for the city to take over operations of the 33-year-old building. But a city hall memo distributed Thursday makes it clear that isn’t in the cards, saying the city doesn’t have plans to “assume operations of a privately owned facility” downtown.

Doram said they would need to spend about $10 million in the coming years for mechanical and electrical upgrades, as well as other life-cycle costs.

She said the other YMCA locations haven’t seen the same attendance drop. Three new branches opened during the downturn and YMCA membership actually grew.

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Access to recreation in Calgary’s core neighbourhoods has been a sore spot for city council recently. The aging Beltline and Inglewood pools were slated for closure at the end of 2019, but after community outcry council opted to keep them open for at least two years.

At the time, councillors said it was a “use-it-or-lose-it” situation for the facilities. But just as they entered a critical period for their future, pandemic restrictions shut them down.

City staff consulted Calgarians last year about recreation needs in the Beltline and Inglewood. A report back to council with recommendations about what to do with the pools long-term will be presented to council later in 2021.

Beltline Neighbourhoods Association president Peter Oliver said the loss of the Eau Claire YMCA should change that conversation.

He’d like to see a renewed focus on plans for a new, modern recreation centre in downtown Calgary, like the large centres that have opened recently in far-flung communities like Seton and Rocky Ridge.

Inglewood Pool in SE Calgary, Alberta on July 26,2012 . The City of Calgary is launching a review of recreational facilities starting with pools in Inglewood and the Beltline. STUART DRYDEN/CALGARY SUN/QMI AGENCY
Two inner-city pools, including the one in Inglewood, were slated for closure until council granted them a temporary reprieve. Photo by Stuart Dryden /Postmedia Files

“This does leave a gaping hole in the recreation options for people in the Beltline,” Oliver said. “And this is at a time when everyone is asking how we reinvigorate the downtown, how we get more people to live downtown, how we get the new generation to plant roots here and stay in Calgary.”

The Repsol Sport Centre just south of Victoria Park is now one of the only recreation options for Calgarians living in the core. But Oliver said it isn’t quite as easy to get to if you don’t have a car, and the YMCA or Beltline Aquatic and Fitness Centre have been easier for some inner-city dwellers to reach.

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Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra, who represents Inglewood and Ramsay, said he’s interested in a conversation about how the Repsol Sport Centre might be able to more effectively fill the inner-city recreation gap.

“I’m a big believer that the publicly owned but privately operated Repsol Centre is an asset we want to maximize,” he said.

“Rather than build a brand new facility, let’s double and triple down on the Repsol Centre and invest in making it easier for people in the inner city to get there,” he said.

Doram said while the YMCA might not have a physical presence downtown any longer, they aren’t abandoning the area, and they’ll be asking Calgarians about what other types of programming they might want to see.

But Farrell said the closure of such an important downtown amenity is a hard pill to swallow while Calgary is hoping to attract a new wave of people to live and work in the core.

“You need to recognize that people who live in high-density areas need amenities too. And the city has not been focusing on providing services to the people living in the core.”

masmith@postmedia.com

Twitter: @meksmith

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