Exclusive: Columbia’s historic downtown YMCA likely to be bought by First Baptist Church

jmonk@thestate.comMay 7, 2014 

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The YMCA of America will be 150-years-old in 2001. Columbia has had a YMCA for 146 years, making it one of the oldest in the states. The YMCA on Sumter Street in downtown Columbia was completed in 1912.

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— The historic YMCA building in downtown Columbia is being sold/will likely be sold to the also historic First Baptist Church on the same city block, The State newspaper has learned.

According to an email sent to YMCA staff in the past several days, the YMCA at 1420 Sumter St. will probably be sold to First Baptist Church within 90 days. The church still must sign off on the deal.

“After much study and deliberation ... The YMCA of Columbia has entered into a contract to sell the current Downtown YMCA to the First Baptist Church, subject to the approval of the church in conference,” the email said.

In an interview Wednesday, YMCA CEO Bryan Madden confirmed the upcoming sale and stressed the YMCA’s governing board intends to keep a fitness center downtown.

“There is no possible way we won’t have a downtown facility,” Madden said. The downtown YMCA has about 4,000 members, some as part of family memberships, and about 65 full- and part-time staff.

“There’s been a downtown YMCA since it was founded in 1854, and the executive board is adamant that we stay in the downtown area,” Madden said.

The YMCA building – where since 1911 generations of Columbians have stayed in shape and socialized – would not be turned over to First Baptist for up to 18 months or so after the contract is finalized.

Before the contract is finalized, First Baptist will conduct due diligence for three months, inspecting the 103-year-old, six-story, brick building.

The results of the inspection might have an effect on the final purchase price. But First Baptist spokeswoman Sherri Lydon said she wasn’t authorized to discuss what that will be.

But she did say church members are glad to have the chance to acquire the property.

“The Y approached us with this opportunity, and we’re very excited,” Lydon said.

Lydon, a First Baptist member and local attorney, also said the church has not decided whether it will renovate the YMCA or put the site to another use.

The 90-day due diligence phase of the transaction, and the 18 months’ time the YMCA has to vacate the current location, will give the YMCA enough time to find another downtown site, Madden said. The church also will be able to figure out its plans for the site during that time.

If consummated, the acquisition of the YMCA building would give the already large First Baptist Church ownership of an entire downtown city block one block off Main Street. It would join Trinity Cathedral as a church complex that occupies a full block downtown.

For years, the 6,000-member church has been said to be considering acquiring the current YMCA building or the property it sits on.

One of the more recent expansions of the church occurred about 20 years ago, when it bought the old Richland County public library – which for years had been next to the YMCA – along Sumter Street. The church then built a large multipurpose building where the library once stood.

The current downtown YMCA is a mixture of old and new. Its small elevator and 20-yard swimming pool in the basement seem somewhat outdated in today’s world. But the large, fifth-floor cardio and conditioning area features modern equipment, and the steam room in the men’s health club was recently renovated at substantial cost. Other rooms are used for activities such as yoga, Zumba and spinning.

When President Obama campaigned in Columbia, he is said to have dropped by the YMCA second-floor gym with members of the Secret Service to play some basketball. Rocker Bruce Springsteen also used it in the 1980s.

In 2011, the Columbia downtown building celebrated its 100th year. However, the YMCA organization has been in Columbia since the 1850s.

The original building on the First Baptist Church property was built in 1856 and the church hosted the opening of the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860 following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.

In the upcoming weeks, following a Sunday service, church members will gather as a group to discuss the transaction, ask questions and vote on the matter, Lydon said.

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