NEW ALBANY — Mike Ricke thought it was a slam dunk. A no brainer. Caesar's, now Horseshoe Southern Indiana, had made a pledge of $20 million to be paid over 10 years to construct a YMCA in downtown New Albany. After all, he thought, no one says no to $20 million, right?
But what Ricke didn't factor in was the politics involved in the plan. Both the city and county had to be on board and commit funds to the project for it to become a reality. That turned into a four-year ordeal.
“The political battle was an absolute nightmare,” said Ricke, who was in charge of the fundraising effort to bring the YMCA to downtown New Albany. “For four years they did their best to turn the gift down. Everyone had a different political motivation.”
But Ricke and others were also motivated. The idea was not about to die under their watch. They kept pushing, and asking, and the deal was finally made. The New Albany City Council, Floyd County Commissioners and Floyd County Council agreed on the plan and the dream finally became reality.
Now, the dream that was first brought up in conversation nearly 20 years ago, is thriving.
The Floyd County Family YMCA will celebrate its 10th birthday all day on Nov. 15 at the facility at 33 State St.
MAKING THE DEAL
Looking back, Ricke said several things had to go right for a YMCA to be constructed in downtown New Albany. The first conversation about putting a YMCA facility in New Albany began in 1999, but ground wasn't broken until 2006. Many things happened during those seven years, Ricke said, in order to make it happen. And without Barry Morris, the former chief executive officer at Caesar's Entertainment, and former New Albany Mayor Regina Overton, there would be no YMCA in Floyd County, he said.
It was Morris who committed the $20 million gift and Overton who was immediately on board with the idea and helped in securing a site and push for funding.
“Without her initial support I don't know if it would have happened to the scale that it did,” Ricke said. “That [$20 million commitment] gave us legs and credibility. It let everyone in the community know it wasn't just a wish.”
The YMCA was still responsible for raising $7.5 million for the $23 million project. A lofty goal, but one Ricke and former executive director of the YMCA of Southern Indiana, Joe LaRocca, were determined to reach.
“We brought Mike on the Y board and the whole idea was for him to head up a strategic committee to see how we could expand our presence in Floyd County,” LaRocca said. “We talked to a lot of folks and Horseshoe wanted to do something big in Floyd County. If it wasn't for Mike Ricke this never would have happened. There were times when it looked like it wasn't going to happen, but Mike was very persistent.”
Once Schmitt Furniture and Double 7 Tires decided to sell property needed for the Y, and the city secured more land for parking, the downtown location was chosen. It was the catalyst for the downtown growth that was to come.
"It gave a lot of business people confidence to locate in downtown New Albany," New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan said. "That public investment and Horseshoe commitment ... people saw results and gave them confidence to invest in New Albany."
Both the city and county councils made 20-year financial commitments toward the project to help secure its construction. The city pays $137,500 a year while the county's yearly payment is $137,000.
LaRocca said there was never a doubt in his mind what the facility could mean to downtown New Albany.
"We all knew it was going to happen. We just had to prove it," he said.
Three years ago the Southern Indiana YMCA was absorbed by the YMCA of Greater Louisville, which has helped secure its future.
"It gave them a lot more resources we weren't able to bring," LaRocca said. "I thought that was a good move."
Ricke said he is proud of the way the community stepped up during the fundraising campaign to secure the YMCA construction. He said the community has always been 100 percent behind the project.
"We were committed," Ricke said. "We talked to everyone. We left no stone unturned. Everyone had an opportunity to be part of the project financially and many people chose to do so. There is no doubt everyone involved in the project knew what it would do for the community."
YMCA STRONGER THAN EVER
The Floyd County YMCA will celebrate its 10th anniversary Thursday, Nov. 15, with several activities throughout the day.
"We want everyone to be able to participate at some level," Jeff Jaehnen, district executive director, said.
There will be a prize wheel, bingo card/scavenger hunt, party games for kids, inflatable obstacle course, trivia contest, selfie station, and, of course, birthday cupcakes and ice cream. It will be a festive day at the YMCA, Jaehnen said.
And there is plenty to celebrate.
In 2017, more than 20,000 individuals benefited from one of the YMCA's many programs, he said. There are currently 3,300 households that have memberships, and 270 of those have been members since the Floyd County facility opened in 2008. Since 2015, the Floyd County Y has grown by 450 households. And even more impressive, more than 1,000 people visit the Floyd County Y each day.
Jaehnen, who replaced LaRocca, came from Dayton, Ohio, and said the Floyd County YMCA is unique in many ways, including its design.
"This facility is amazing. There isn't a Y like this anywhere else," he said. "And we have formed so many great partnerships with the city, county, Baptist Health, Horseshoe Foundation, LifeSpan ... it's a great community asset."
Julie Blocher has been a senior wellness director at the YMCA for 20 years, starting at the Clark County Y. She said the New Albany facility has many fine qualities.
"It's such an open facility, so inviting," she said.
She also believes the Y was the spark plug for downtown growth.
"You didn't see it before the Y," she said. "It's drawn a lot of folks to the downtown area again."
Parents with school-aged children in elementary school also benefit daily from Y services off-site. There are 430 children in the before- and after-school programs in the city and county.
"For working families that is a big deal," Jaehnen said.
The Floyd County YMCA has 230 employees, with the majority being part-time. The Horseshoe Foundation of Floyd County and LifeSpan each have offices on the third floor."
Jaehnen said the merger with Louisville has been positive.
"Louisville has been a great partner," he said.
With so many programs offered at the YMCA, Blocher said it's not a typical gym or workout facility.
"It is such a social and welcoming atmosphere and so many friendships have grown from people meeting here," she said. "It's just a different atmosphere from other places. The Y has been around a long time and will continue to be because of our variety. We offer so much."
Ricke said all of the hard work — and frustration — was worth it. He said the Y is a great asset to the community.
"There is no question everyone involved in the project is very proud of it and how it turned out," he said. "And they are equally as proud for what it has done for the community."