Downtown Sarasota will lose a fitness center when the Babe Weiller branch of the YMCA closes in October, but many members will also lose a sense of community.
Today, young man, there is a need to feel down.
It’s 5:50 a.m. on a Monday, and word is out: The downtown YMCA will be closing.
On Sept. 12, three days after the Sarasota YMCA made the announcement about the Babe Weiller branch at 1991 Main St., less than half of the usual members are working out. The fitness center, which hosts daily classes in a bright, hardwood-floor dance room, has been in Main Plaza since 1998, and downtown for nine years before that.
Throughout the past two decades, the Babe Weiller branch has served as a networking portal for the area’s most powerful attorneys, a community gathering place for downtown residents and a launching pad for notable local fitness groups.
In a letter to members, YMCA interim CEO Steve Bourne said declining membership and rising rents will force the branch to close Oct. 7. In a press release, the organization announced it would consolidate staff and members into the Frank G. Berlin branch, located at 1075 S. Euclid Ave.
Although the Berlin branch will offer new amenities and a larger space, regulars are sad about the circumstances.
“I really grieve its loss,” said Phyllis Barry, who has been going to the downtown Y since she moved to Sarasota 12 years ago. “It is a bit of a tragedy.”
“Change is hard, especially when you’re old like me,” Sarasota County Public Defender Larry Eger said with a laugh.
Some longtime members, like local interior designer Mark Dalton, are downright angry.
“They’ve always treated us like the bastard child,” said Dalton, a 25-year downtown YMCA member who cited issues with older machinery and a recent air conditioning breakdown. “Over the years, they’ve pissed off big groups of people who keep on leaving and leaving and leaving.”
Won Huh, the former Mr. Korea-winning bodybuilder who has been training clients at Babe Weiller for nearly a quarter of a century, doesn’t want to talk about it at all.
But in all cases, members highlight the friendships they’ve made and a camaraderie that’s been a core element of the Babe Weiller branch. Here are a few of their reflections and thoughts about the branch closing.
Dan Bailey, a local land use attorney who has represented some of the area’s largest local institutions, attributes one of his daily passions to the downtown Y.
For the past decade or so, Bailey has been part of a group of around a dozen people that walks from the Y over the Ringling Bridge to Bird Key and back downtown almost every week. The trek was part of a running route for Bailey as far back as the 1970s until he had two arthroscopic knee surgeries. He’s still able to incorporate the walk into his fitness routine today.
The group includes real estate agents, a dentist, a Vietnam POW, a local journalist and a Haitian-born psychologist, along with a wide range of other professionals.
“I’m always inquiring about someone’s background, because it’s amazing some of the stories you’ll hear there,” Bailey said.
Bailey will follow Huh, with whom he regularly trains, to the Berlin branch after Oct. 7. It will likely affect his walking group, which has benefited from a downtown location, and he may lose touch with some members who choose to go elsewhere.
“I’ll miss a lot of my friends,” Bailey said.
Barry also has a walking group that has transformed her outlook on fitness.
“It’s a real opportunity for socialization as well as exercise,” she said.
Barry has witnessed birthday celebrations for members in the cavernous hallway just outside of the gym’s entrance. She buys Christmas gifts for the instructor of her flexibility class.
Her husband, Roger, an emeritus professor of urban planning at the University of Cincinnati, questions why the Y wouldn’t want to maintain a presence downtown with more than 1,000 residential units planned in and around the downtown core.
“I moved to Sarasota 12 years ago to have a walkable downtown,” Phyllis Barry said. “This is what I wanted, and now it’ll be someplace else.”
When Eger found out about the closure, he wasn’t surprised.
“It was just very sad — it is the end of an era,” Eger said. “My mother worked out there, I work out there, and my children worked out there — it’s multigenerational.”
As an attorney, he also recognized the importance of the Babe Weiller branch as a professional networking spot.
Art Jackman, a member of the lunchtime crew who is felony division chief for the Sarasota County State Attorney’s Office, recalls Eger introducing him to the gym in 1994. Since then, Jackman has been coming as part of a weight-training regimen.
“I’ve made some lifelong friends during that period,” Jackman said.
Dalton, 59, started going to the downtown Y when it was located in the Sarasota City Center office building.
“Downtown professionals go to that gym specifically because of the location,” said Dalton, who owns the interior design firm Chic on the Cheap. “I try not to start my car in the morning if I don’t have to.”
Compared to the YMCA’s other locations, he said the absence of “loud musclemen” made the Babe Weiller branch ideal, as well.
“Even though there were big muscle guys there, its not like they’re shoving it down your throat,” he said.
Even though he didn’t like to converse too much while working out, Dalton valued the communal, almost intimate environment downtown.
“You can go in and you don’t have to talk to anybody, but it’s the kind of place that if you do want to talk to people, you can,” Dalton said. “And I think that’s going to be something that’s missing downtown.”