Ellicott City YMCA trying again to expand

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

May 02, 2004|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

THE CRAMPED Howard County YMCA in Ellicott City is going to try again to double in size, hoping for more than a little help from a recent zoning change and the vision and deep financial pockets of land developers.

Troy Weaver, executive director of the YMCA on Montgomery Road, has notified members by letter that the Y's board of managers is asking developers to propose ways of developing part - or even all - of the institution's 12.5 acres.

In an interview, Weaver said that ideas have been solicited from about 70 developers operating primarily in Howard County, as well as nearby parts of Baltimore County.

"It's literally open-ended," Weaver said. The Y's leaders have no preconceived opinion of what they foresee for the acreage, he said, which at the moment has the Y's building and a temporary structure immediately behind it. The rest is parking space, which often overflows, and either fields or woods.

"We've got to get going here," Weaver said, "because the space we have is inadequate. We have to do something to improve and increase the space we need for our programs. We want to be able to control our own destiny."

For years, the Y's lower-floor space for working out - with weights, treadmills, stair-climbers, stationary bikes and other fitness equipment - has become increasingly jammed. Locker rooms are tiny. A leaky roof, belabored heating and air conditioning and sometimes problematic plumbing have frustrated Y staff members for longer than most have worked there.

"We have about 7,000 memberships that total about 10,000 users of our facilities," Weaver said, "and it's just at the point where we have to move forward."

The Y's competition has an edge in the space race. The three fitness centers operated by the Columbia Park and Recreation Association and an array of other, private operators offer prospective members more variety in equipment and considerably more space - not to mention space that is more attractive. Fitness programs, particularly for adults, remain one of the nation's hottest businesses in the general field of athletics and sports.

Weaver said the Montgomery Road building, which includes a 25-yard indoor swimming pool, has about 23,000 square feet. Managers envision a new facility more than twice that size, totaling about 50,000 square feet.

But the nonprofit Y needs money, and only selling some of the land can generate enough to make a new facility feasible, he said.

The Y's idea of parlaying profit from selling its land into a new, larger facility with less lawn and probably fewer trees may sound familiar.

In 2001, the Y's managers came within a whisker of selling off much of the acreage roughly opposite the Long Gate Shopping Center in a complicated deal that would have included building a Lowe's home center.

But members of the nearby Bethel Baptist Church, which was involved in the transaction proposed by developer J. Chris Pippen, voted at the last moment to not go along because, in the words of its pastor, the Rev. Bruce Romoser, "The church felt that God was leading us not to vote in favor of this motion to proceed with Lowe's."

Since then, the Y and most other property owners have stood pat, awaiting this year's revision of the county's master zoning plan.

In that new plan, Weaver said, the Y's property has been earmarked for more intensive residential development, meaning townhouses or housing for seniors. Weaver said the new zoning would allow "four to eight units an acre, instead of two, which were allowed under the previous zoning."

And that change makes the acreage even more valuable, he said, although by how much is unclear. The Y reportedly lost a shot at $3 million when the 2001 proposal fell through.

The letter to Y members was somewhat cryptic, reading that "at this moment, we are considering three options," then listing what seemed obvious: selling all, part or none of the acreage.

But in an interview, Weaver said that "we don't anticipate having to sell the whole property." He is expecting, he said, to have an array of proposals from developers within 30 to 45 days, no later than mid-June.

A news release on the Y's solicitation to developers said that "any option chosen will proceed without any disruption of services. Whether the branch renovates the current facility or purchases other property, [the] focus will continue to be on quality service for members and the community."

What do you think - about the Y's future, or anything else on Howard County's amateur sports scene? Share your thoughts. Call the writer at 410-332-6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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