The indoor spiral slide is shown inside the Kingsport Aquatic Center in this recent photo. Ned Jilton photo.
KINGSPORT — More than 1,200 people have joined the YMCA since December in the lead-up to the opening of its new facility. By comparison, less than 50 people have joined the Kingsport Aquatic Center since the city first started accepting memberships back in March.
In less than two weeks, the Kingsport Aquatic Center and the YMCA Wellmont Center are expected to be open for business. People have the option to just join the aquatic center and have year-round access to the indoor and outdoor pools and water features, or they could join the YMCA, which includes full access to the aquatic center.
In reaction to the disparity, Mayor Dennis Phillips said the numbers concern him, but they do not panic him. Phillips continued by saying the YMCA has been making a strong push for memberships on television and in other media.
“And I think in the case of the aquatic center, it’s going to be hard for the average person to know what it really is until they go out there and see it,” Phillips said. “Very few people have been inside and they’ll truly be amazed when they see it.”
Charlie Glass, executive director of the YMCA, said the main advantage for the YMCA has been its previous presence in the community.
“We have been planning a new facility, including a pool, for at least the 18 years I’ve been here. We have always known, and counted on the fact, that when we opened, there would be new membership growth,” Glass said. “There’s no question that our new facility is getting more people excited and interested, but we’ve made huge strides in communicating our cause to the community at large during the past several months.
“We are confident (aquatic center) numbers will dramatically increase after the opening of the facility.”
The original idea behind the aquatic center project was for Kingsport to co-locate its facility with the YMCA and for the YMCA to manage both facilities with city officials saying the move would save Kingsport money on operating expenses. However, last September, Kingsport dissolved the management agreement with the YMCA, again saying the move would save the city money.
Today, Kingsport and the YMCA will each foot the bill for their respective facilities, though the YMCA will still pay Kingsport 10 percent of its membership dues for access to the aquatic center.
Some members of the community and a couple of city aldermen at the time the decision was made said co-location was creating an unfair advantage for the YMCA. Eastman Chemical Co. donated the 15.8-acre site to the city for the project and the YMCA pays a nominal yearly lease to the city.
Stan Pace, owner of Gold Star Fitness, has long complained about co-location, saying the YMCA is the greatest competitor he has.
“Up to this point, we are noticing very little mention of the aquatics center from our members,” Pace said. “But I hope it does well and is not a long-term financial burden on the community.”
Phillips said what effect the aquatic center will have on other fitness centers in town is a hard question to answer.
“Are we being unfair to the other places? I don’t know. It certainly depends on who you ask. Are we taking away some (members) from other fitness center? We probably are,” Phillips said.
Stan Johnson, owner of the Great Body Company, said he has not noticed much of a difference in membership this spring, adding if anyone has left it has been strictly for the use of the aquatic center.
Johnson said he is working with the city on an arrangement for GBC members to have access to the aquatic center.
“We feel that the GBC has an integral part to play in bridging the gap between health care and fitness in our community. GBC and the aquatics center have the ability to partner in this important role,” Johnson said.
The $26 million development is one of the largest quality of life projects undertaken by the city and has generated quite a bit of buzz in recent months among YMCA members, on the Internet, and in the media, and within the community as a whole. The project has been more than five years in the making, with many ups and downs, including some controversy over the location, partnering with the YMCA and the overall cost of the facility.
Chris McCartt, assistant to the city manager, said the city has received calls every day from the public about swimming lessons and party rentals along with membership questions.
“We’re not open yet and less than 200 people have walked through the facility and seen it,” McCartt said. “Unlike the YMCA or other fitness facilities that have been open and had a presence, we’re new. It’s a new venture for the city.”
City officials are estimating the aquatic center will have a yearly budget of $1 million, which includes a $300,000 subsidy from the city (out of the regional sales tax fund). McCartt said the budget would include $150,000 from the YMCA — 10 percent of its membership dues.
Ideally, Kingsport would like to see more aquatic center members, as it would be able to recoup all of those revenues, rather than just the 10 percent of membership revenues from the YMCA.
McCartt said membership revenue is a bigger piece of the pie, but noted other activities (rentals, lessons) bring in revenue for the city. Plus, the aquatic center, much like the MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, has indirect benefits to the city, McCartt said, through tourism and nearby development.
“Right out of the gate, it’s hard for us to give an answer (on the subsidy). Six months from now we’ll have a better answer, and in a couple of a years we’ll really nail it down,” McCartt said. “We hope memberships come, that we gain revenue through programming, and we still feel confident that we have a high-quality product that’s unique and one of a kind in our region.”