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Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 63-year-old JoAnn Sadler dons her bright purple sweat suit, leaves her Manor Park NW home, boards the 62 bus, and commutes 30 minutes to the 9th Street YWCA. She arrives just in time for 9 a.m. water aerobics, leaves her cane and her pack of smokes in the locker room, and then lowers her body into the pool for a two-hour class. The workouts keep Sadler’s arthritis pain at bay, and she has included them in her regular routine for years.
But last month, Sadler, a former telephone company employee, added one more item to the routine: “raising hell,” if you’ll excuse her language. Fearing that her water-aerobics class is at risk, Sadler has joined a diverse cadre of outraged YWCA members protesting the nonprofit’s decision to turn its frumpy old gym into a corporate athletic center.
In late January, YWCA Executive Director Josephine Pamphile sent a letter to fitness-center members declaring that the Y’s board of directors was negotiating a contract with the for-profit Sport and Health Co. to transform the Y into “a top competitor in the downtown area.” To devoted Y members, the board’s announcement came as a complete surprise.
On Valentine’s Day, Sadler joined a group of grandmotherly, overweight women who attempted to storm the Y to demand a meeting with Pamphile. They hoped to voice their fear that Sport and Health would radically change the comfy environment of their rec center, raising rates and driving away older and poorer members. When the gray-haired rabble-rousers tried to enter the executive offices, the elderly women say, they were rudely rebuffed by security guards, who blocked the corridor. One cane-wielding woman asked a guard, “What the hell’s wrong? We’re members of the Y, why can’t we come in?”
Despite the protest and a petition drive, the Y pressed ahead with its decision to bring in Sport and Health. On Feb. 16, the Y handed off management of the fitness center to Sport and Health. The stalwarts say the place will never be the same.
“With the new management, there are no chairs in the locker room, the walls need scrubbing, and I don’t see my favorite workers,” Sadler says. “Things are changing.”
“The [old-time] members are being pushed aside,” she continues. “I feel completely powerless.”
The YWCA has been serving the community and all its shades of flabby flesh for 90 years. The facility at 9th and G Streets NW operates a day-care center and a career school, teaches girl scouts, and offers health programs for the elderly. And of course, it opens its gym to the public. The gym’s community service mission is evident in everything from its distinctly unfashionable location to its distinctly unfashionable clientele. From their benches next to the Martin Luther King Jr. library, brown-bagging bums gaze through the second-floor windows and snicker at the Y’s aerobics classes. Inside, there are no washboard stomachs or thong leotards: Cellulite is chic, and bathing suits with skirts are all the rage.
The Y’s switch to private health-club management stems from the nonprofit’s financial troubles. In February 1991, the 9th Street Y closed its doors to renovate the gym and bring the building up to code. The two-year hiatus left the club strapped for cash. It also coincided with a drop in support from the United Way, the club’s primary nongovernment contributor (the Y’s budget tops $3.5 million annually; it receives about a half-million dollars from government agencies). Beset by its own financial crisis, the United Way slashed its contribution to the 9th Street Y from $200,000 in 1993 to nothing in 1995.
Pamphile says the Y is running a $100,000 deficit and needs extra fitness-club memberships to break even. Her organization’s financial difficulties mirror those at YWCAs nationwide, but 9th Street is the first YWCA in the country to turn over its fitness operation to a private company. Pamphile says the National YWCA’s executive director applauds the decision.
Pamphile, who earns $80,000 a year as the Y’s National Capital Area Executive Director, pledges that Sport and Health will retain services such as water aerobics and the PACE program for recovering heart-attack patients. But to attract more members, Pamphile says, something had to change. Sport and Health already manages several downtown fitness clubs, including gyms in the Washington Hilton and the Watergate. Under the arrangement with the Y, Sport and Health manages the gym and collects 10 percent of the profits it generates. Sport and Health officials referred calls for comment to Pamphile.
According to Elizabeth Solomon, commissioner of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2F and devoted Y member, the YWCA needs 250 more members to erase the red ink. But even with increased membership, fees will rise. Before Sport and Health took over, YWCA charged a $100 initiation fee and $30 to $40 per month, depending on income. Sport and Health charges $175 for initiation and about $50 per month, depending on income. Solomon and others predict the
higher rates may scare away some of the old-timers. Solomon asks, “What is a public institution? The city is losing its public institutions because it’s easier to forget about financial problems and sign over public status to private companies.”
Members acknowledge the Y’s financial problems but say they resent the board’s closed-door negotiations and its indifference to its older, poorer patrons. To these members, the idea of competing with swank gyms like Bally’s and Washington Sports is antithetical to the nonprofit’s mission of empowering women, fighting racism, and serving a low-income population overlooked by the corporate fitness industry.
As evidence, they point to the Rhode Island Avenue YMCA, a seven-story palace equipped with sauna, lounge, cable TV, and fancy locker room. Membership at this YMCA now tops 5,000, but most of it is young professionals who can afford the $200 initiation fee and $60-plus per month basic membership. Only 20 percent of the nonprofit YMCA’s members receive financial aid. (In other jurisdictions, private health clubs have challenged the tax exemptions of YMCA health clubs, contending that they exploit their nonprofit status to suck away members from private gyms.)
For now, the 9th Street Y looks much as its always has. The same treadmills, exercise bikes, and StairMasters cram the mezzanine level, and the same middle-aged women in baggy sweat suits are using them.
But JoAnn Sadler has noticed that a few of her favorite staff members are gone. The remaining staffers are wearing the turquoise Sport and Health uniform instead of their former broken-in sweats. The management offices are now peopled with flashy young office types in suits and ties.
And member Diana Amusen suspects that a much more significant change is coming. Soon, she says, some veteran members may not risk squeezing on a plus-size swimsuit next to a tanned young workout babe visiting from one of Sport and Health’s other locations. “Speaking as an older person, it’s a big step walking into a club for younger people,” she says. “The YWCA reaches out to people who are a little lumpy.”—Alexis B. Rohde