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East County Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022 7 months ago

Working It Out

The struggling Manatee Family YMCA is now under the umbrella of the larger YMCA of Southwest Florida.
by: Eric Snider Contributor

As of Jan. 1, the Manatee County Family YMCA can breathe easier. That’s because the financially strapped organization, which includes fitness centers in Lakewood Ranch and Bradenton, officially became part of the much stronger YMCA of Southwest Florida. With the addition of the new northern locations, the organization encompasses eight fitness centers, four early learning academies and two charter middle schools. A management agreement between the two institutions that began in April 2021 led to the unanimous vote of both boards of directors to enter into a full merger.

Manatee Y members will experience “a smooth transition,” says Jamie Browning, vice president of development for the Southwest Florida YMCA. “We’ll be adding enhanced programming and increased youth opportunities, as well as a stronger outreach effort. Our Y has been a fiscally sound, strong organization and served our community for decades. With Manatee, we will be stronger together and able to serve more people.”

Over its 177-year history, the YMCA has always been more than a place to work out, and that’s what sets it apart from the commercial gyms that dot street corners and strip malls. Most Y branches form a strong personal bond with their members and provide far more than exercise machines and personal trainers. Whether it’s 6-year-olds gamely shooting layups on a low rim while parents cheer them or octogenarians staying limber in Silver Sneakers classes, a healthy Y adds wide-ranging value to a community. That certainly has been the case in Lakewood Ranch and Bradenton, and shutting down either or both facilities would have dealt a significant blow to their communities.

Shannon Matthews, senior vice president of operations and innovation, and Jamie Browning, vice president of development for Southwest Florida YMCA

While there is no readily apparent evidence that the two Manatee centers were in danger of permanently closing, they clearly needed a lifeline. According to the East County Observer, in the summer of 2019 the organization had endured a 15% drop in membership, which caused job cuts and salary reductions for remaining staffers. With a significantly smaller operating budget, the Manatee Y began to right the ship, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled the recovery. Membership plummeted 50% when the Y closed its two facilities from March 16 to May in 2020. The Parrish branch shuttered permanently in April of that year.

The Manatee Y limped along for the next few months, subject to the ebbs, flows and surges of the pandemic. “Manatee had a leadership change, and my understanding is that the new leadership reached out to the (Florida State Alliance of YMCAs), and that group connected them to us,” says Shannon Matthews, senior vice president of operations and innovation for the YMCA of Southwest Florida.

The Manatee Family YMCA is now part of a formidable operation whose current reach ranges from Bradenton to Bonita Springs, 130 miles to the south. Its origins date to 1967, with the opening of the Venice YMCA, which continues to house the corporate headquarters. In the early ’90s, Englewood came into the fold, followed by Fort Myers in 2011, then Bonita Springs, Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda.

The Southwest Florida YMCA’s service area also includes Sarasota, which saw its two fitness centers close in 2019 due largely to increased competition from private-sector operators such as LA Fitness, Crunch and Planet Fitness. “We are looking for space in Sarasota,” says Matthews, while adding that a brick-and-mortar Y in the city is not imminent.

The Bradenton Y opened in 1977, and Lakewood Ranch started a satellite branch in 2003, thanks to a property donation by the developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. In 2011, the facility underwent a major expansion that included a new fitness center, arts studio, cycling room and childcare room. Prior to March 2020, the Lakewood Ranch branch had 2,859 members, according to the Observer, while the Bradenton Y had 1,640. Browning says that the Manatee Family YMCA currently has around 3,000 membership units, which consist of families, couples, youths and individuals.

Both Matthews and Browning say that fixating on YMCA buildings misses the larger point. “The YMCA is more than a gym,” Browning asserts. “That’s what makes us stand apart from other fitness centers. We service everyone from children less than a year old to adults in their senior years. The Y is about youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.”

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