East Tennessee YMCA CEO Jim Dickson doesn't need to engage in any arguments about the wisdom of building a new YMCA facility, the Davis Family branch, in far west Knoxville, three miles past Concord Park on Northshore Drive. All he has to do is gesture to the parking lot on a dreary gray February Sunday afternoon. It's packed, with mid-size and economy vehicles offloading boisterous teens and carefully combed soccer moms and their broods, while Silver Sneaker-age couples stroll in together. Inside the 24,000 square foot facility, all is gleaming and clean, from the sponsor-named Denark Construction lobby to the green vinyl banquettes in the hallways to the Packard Family Child Watch Area to the book swap shelf with its well-thumbed Family Fun magazines and Jodi Picoult and Danielle Steel paperbacks. And while there's no wait for the equipment or swim lanes, the workout spaces are in full swing, ellipticals to treadmills, and smiling young fathers and kids with floaties dot the indoor pool.
"When people think we've built out in the middle of nowhere, that's not really the case," says Dickson, who's worked for the YMCA organization 28 years altogether, the most recent nine here in East Tennessee. "We're here near neighborhoods, and schools, a family spot. Already we've had 1,000 members join at the Davis Family branch since it opened in January."
Note that those are 1,000 members new to the East Tennessee YMCA, which includes locations downtown, east, west, and in Halls (the Northside Y) and now this one. The new facility also absorbed about 1,000 members from the former Farragut YMCA on Kingston Pike, which closed recently as part of this strategic shift. The East Tennessee YMCA also includes 10 afterschool childcare sites in schools. "We take care of about 1,000 school children each day, do teen outreach, teach thousands to swim each year," says Dickson.
He's not sensitive about an occasional misconception about the YMCA. When your brand is so well-established you have instant recognition, it's hard to quibble that you've outgrown certain components of the name. The national Young Men's Christian Association was formed 155 years ago and the first Knoxville YMCA opened in 1929, but both the "men" and "Christian" monikers can be a little misleading. "As an organization, we're doing pretty much the same thing as then, trying to help solve problems in the community," says Dickson. "Only now as we've evolved we take care of men, women, and children. All ages. It's a place for everyone."
And while the Y stills holds fast to its mission "To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all," it is not an evangelical group; members of all religions are welcome. "We have Muslim members," says Dickson. "Locally, we now have more female members and more female staff than male. We reflect our community."
The Davis Family Y, built on land donated by nearby Jefferson Park developer Scott Davis in honor of his deceased brother Jefferson Davis, reflects a more affluent community than many of the other local branches. But even here, the YMCA's income-based, sliding-scale scholarships for membership and lessons come into play. An individual adult membership at full rates is $49 per month (single youth is $24), and up to 75 percent of any membership can possibly be assumed by scholarship. "Around 70 percent of our members receive some sort of scholarship, and right now, of the people who have joined the Davis Family Y or are taking swim lessons there, about 30 percent have acquired scholarships."
The YMCA sets itself apart from other fitness centers in other ways, too; not requiring long-term contracts for example. And there's the provision where joining one YMCA allows a member to work out at any YMCA in the East Tennessee region, and across the United States. The Y also collaborates with groups from the Boy Scouts to the Health Department to local churches. "Because of our working together, there is much less need for gymnasiums and pools in the area," says Dickson.
Each Y in the area also has a few things that set it apart from the others. The Westside and Northside Ys, for example, have outdoor pools; the Westside one even has a sliding board. This facility has an indoor salt water swim pool with UV purification, the only one of its sort in the state. "The water goes back in a pump room and is pushed across UV light that kills any germs," says Dickson. "It cost more up front, but it costs less to operate in the long run, and it's a green thing; we're not using chlorine and other harmful chemicals."
Looking forward, Dickson says all East Tennessee branches are starting to really focus on what they can do to stop the ever-increasing youth obesity rate in our area. Says Dickson: "That's something that goes across our community, and we'll be working with the school system and health department to see how we can stop the epidemic."
Clarified: Monthly adult membership rate is $49, while a single youth is $24.