Fenton is losing millions on its rec center. Now the YMCA might take over. | Local Business

FENTON — City officials here are in talks to have the YMCA run their municipal recreation center, which has long operated at a deficit, costing the city millions of dollars more than it has generated. 

If the deal goes through, it would be the first time Gateway Region YMCA would take over operations of an existing facility in the St. Louis region, officials said. Fenton’s Board of Aldermen will discuss creating a task force to lead those negotiations at its virtual meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. 

“The devil is in the details. … We want to make an informed decision,” said Mayor Bob Brasses. “It’s important to get it right.”

Rec centers are on many municipalities’ must-have lists. But they’re often money pits, costing more in upkeep than the revenue they generate.

In Ballwin, for example, it has lost $200,645 on its rec center over the past five years. Arnold, in Jefferson County, lost $1.2 million on its facility, according to a Post-Dispatch review of those cities’ annual financial reports. The Fenton rec center, called RiverChase, has cost the city $2.3 million over the same period.  

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The 71,000-square-foot glass and brick facility, at 990 Horan Drive, sits behind several business parks atop a hill that overlooks Interstate 44 and South Highway Drive. It has three swimming pools, an indoor track and fitness area, a gymnasium and meeting and exercise rooms. It cost around $17 million to build in 1999, financed by Fenton’s parks and storm-water sales tax of one-half of 1%.

But the city has lost at least $6.1 million on RiverChase since 2004, when Fenton began breaking out revenue and expenditures for the facility in its annual financial reports.  

Earlier this month, Alderman Tom Heard said the city recovered 85 cents for every dollar it spent on RiverChase in 2016. By 2021, that figure dropped to 31 cents.  

Brasses, Fenton’s mayor, believes private gyms also have hurt RiverChase. 

“Competitors showed up and it was no longer the only game in town,” he said.

Last fall, city officials approached YMCA about managing RiverChase. It was an exciting call to get, said CEO Tim Helm: YMCA doesn’t have any branches in the Fenton area, so RiverChase would fill a hole in coverage without cannibalizing its other locations. 

YMCA facilities are open to all members. That could help with attracting more people to RiverChase. 

And each branch has its own volunteer board of advisers who weigh in on the community’s wants and needs that could tailor programming to Fenton residents.

It also would usher in a new era for YMCA. The nonprofit organization has operated two St. Louis city-owned facilities, at Carondelet and O’Fallon parks, since they opened, but a municipality has never asked it to take over an existing rec center, Helm said. 

“It’s about helping and partnering with the city,” he said. “It’s a unique opportunity.” 

But officials stress no decision has been made. There are many details still to be laid out about how the partnership would work and whether it could help ease the city’s financial burden while also satisfying its longtime users. There will be more public meetings, they said. 

If talks progress, the Board of Aldermen and Gateway Region YMCA board of directors could sign a deal by mid-year. Then it could take anywhere from a few months to a year to transition operations, Helm said. 

Some RiverChase users are unsure about the possible change.

On a recent evening at the facility, where the smell of chlorine wafted through the air, more than two dozen residents converged for their workouts. 

Gene Huber, 62, works out here three times a week. It could get crowded if it becomes a YMCA, he said.  

Gary Krupey, 67, a regular since RiverChase opened, came for his biweekly taekwondo class. The facility is never too crowded, he said. He wouldn’t mind if that changed. 

That could mean more students for Kurt Valdez, who teaches the taekwondo classes. Up to 70 children and adults were regulars before the coronavirus pandemic; now there’s around 45. And it would be great if the YMCA helped lessen the city’s financial burden, he said. 

Valdez, 42, is still waiting to hear more details, especially on what classes the YMCA will offer, before making up his mind. 

But, he said, “the YMCA knows what they’re doing. There’s a reason why they have a number of facilities.”  

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