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Ashland looking to form YMCA

A YMCA for the southern Boone County community is in the early planning stages — if volunteers can raise enough funding to levitate the project. As envisioned, the new organization would be a branch of the Jefferson City Area YMCA.

On Monday evening, about a dozen supporters from Hartsburg and Ashland discussed the next stages of the Founder’s Campaign, an initiative to raise $500,000 in pledges in the next five years.

Dave Westhoff — chairman of the committee — said surveys have shown the southern Boone County community overwhelmingly is interested in YMCA access.

“Surveys tell us the community really, really wants this,” Westhoff said.

He listed programs — such as a fitness center, adult group exercise and after-school childcare — among the more-popular services that could be offered. In the beginning, the new YMCA branch will hold its programs at churches, schools and other public facilities.

Westhoff envisions a facility like Fulton’s.

“Fulton’s YMCA is ideal,” he said. “It has about 6,000 square feet, two basketball courts, an indoor track, program rooms and fitness facilities.”

Westhoff’s group started with thoughts of an independent YMCA, but learned the national office doesn’t grant chargers to communities with fewer than 30,000 residents. And so they approached the Jefferson City Area YMCA to see if leaders there would be willing to support another facility — where they found support.

“The Jefferson City Area YMCA has been fantastic to work with,” Westhoff said.

He noted about 12,000 people live within eight miles of Ashland, which he believes is enough to support a fitness center. “I think it’s a perfect fit,” Westhoff noted.

George Hartsfield, retired CEO of the Jefferson City Area YMCA, was on hand at Monday’s meeting to offer insights into the process.

Asked if he thought there are enough southern Boone County residents to maintain a branch, Hartsfield replied: “That’s what we’re trying to determine… if there’s enough support.”

Westhoff believes raising $500,000 is a challenge, but doable. He’s hoping to create a group of volunteers who are willing to approach businesses first, and individuals later, with requests for donations. The money is expected to cover the first five years of expenses — about $100,000 a year to pay for a staff member, small facility rental, equipment purchases and other overhead costs. If the effort is successful, programs could start next spring.

“Every penny raised in southern Boone County will remain,” Westhoff aid.

The first $500,000 likely won’t be used to build a new fitness facility. Meeting that goal will take a second-phase “capital campaign” following the founder’s campaign. Membership fees are not required until a facility has been established, Hartsfield noted.

Chair of the fundraising campaign, Bern Bonderer, said a gymnasium, track and multipurpose building are higher priorities than constructing a swimming pool which are expensive to operate.

Westhoff also told listeners at the meeting not everyone has embraced the idea; he noted some supporters of the Ashland Optimists — which runs youth sports programs — are concerned.

“It’s a misconception … we don’t want to compete with Optimist sports. We’re here to serve the community,” he said.

Hartsfield talked briefly about the path Jefferson City has walked. He noted in 1973 a founder’s campaign raised enough money to support a part-time staffer who organized programs around town. By 1975, a capital campaign was underway to build the Knowles natatorium. In 1988, the Firley family bought the Jefferson City Racquet Club and donated it to the YMCA. The West YMCA on Amazonas opened in 2010. Today, the Jefferson City Area YMCA operates on a $5.5 million budget, half of which is raised by membership dues.

“But 40 years ago, we started the same way,” he told the volunteers.

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