Columbia, SC — Downtown Columbia’s redevelopment is gathering momentum with new stores and residential development, but one critical feature is missing: a first-class fitness facility to serve residents and office workers.
The Sumter Street YMCA, wedged into the First Baptist Church’s campus, is simply too small and outdated. The locker and shower rooms are dingy and dank, the women’s facilities substandard, and the building is not handicapped accessible, as I discovered a few years ago when I was on crutches for a few months. Its tiny basement pool recently flooded, the rooms used for zumba and yoga classes are oddly shaped because they were designed to be dorm rooms, and spin classes are held in a former office that includes a fireplace and an air conditioning system, neither of which works.
It’s remarkable that the YMCA is still being used for the same purpose for which it was built a century ago on land donated by Woodrow Wilson’s family. It has survived a Depression and numerous recessions and adapted to the civil rights and women’s movements. And it retains a certain funky charm. But a visit to one of the new Gold’s Gyms springing up throughout the area, or USC’s Strom Thurmond center or even one of the suburban Ys will show how obsolete the downtown Y has become.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said recently, “We firmly believe that the heart of any community is having a vibrant urban core.” But downtown is now without an essential marketing tool to lure businesses and residential developers to its heart.
The Great Recession and the loss of SCANA and other businesses have cut into its membership and hampered its modernization. But a strong factor is that the Y’s leadership committed its focus and financial resources to the suburbs 20 years ago.
The YMCA is more than a business. It is an institution that supports soccer leagues and summer day camps and even allows the homeless to take showers. It is an integral piece of the infrastructure critical to Columbia’s success.
When then-N.J. Gov. Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone of the Sumter Street YMCA 101 years ago, he congratulated his former hometown for “taking a new start in the salvation of the world.” For generations of Columbians since, the Y has been a source for spiritual and physical salvation. If the city wants a thriving city center, a new Y is essential.