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The Austin YMCA is known as a place to go for Saturday pick-up games.
Athletes from West Side high schools flock to the facility's indoor basketball court to sharpen their free throws or practice their lay-ups. But for student athletes, the real conditioning and training begins in the facility's lower-level fitness center.
Teeming with treadmills, elliptical equipment, and weight machines, athletes come to tone their physic and keep in shape to stay on top of their game. That will all change come next Monday. The YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago plans to close the Austin Y's member center, which includes its fitness room, on Oct. 1.
YMCA officials insist the facility isn't closing, just its membership services. Residential housing at the Austin Y, 501 N. Central Ave., will remain. The Y runs its youth programs out of Horatio May Community Academy, 512 S. Lavergne Ave. Two years ago, the Y shut down its mental health services.
The news of the member center's closure came as a big surprise to Johnny Moore, an assistant coach for girl's basketball at Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park. He contends closing the fitness center or any services connected with the Y will have a huge impact on the community, as well as schools that use the facility. Moore said his players use the gymnasium, which is open to the public on Saturdays, and the weight room.
"It's an open gym and anyone can come in and play pick-up games," Moore said, adding that the fitness center is vital in keeping his players fit in the off-season.
Using weights, he explained, helps student athletes prepare for college sports. Moore, however, doesn't believe the center's closure will impact the team when the season starts in November. Al Raby student Angel Eaton comes to the Austin Y twice a week to play basketball and often uses the fitness center. She called the center's closure "a big inconvenience."
Al Raby sophomore, Angelica Daniel, agreed. She said closing the facility "would be a bad thing" because "we need stuff like this."
YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago officials cited diminished membership use and an aging facility for reasons to close the Austin's member center. In an email to the Austin Weekly News, officials said families are not using the facility "the way they used to."
The Austin Y has about 175 members. The YMCA is working to transfer their membership to the McCormick Tribune facility four miles away. The email noted that many of the Austin Y's former members are using more updated facilities in nearby communities.
Jill McDonnell, the YMCA's communications manager, said the social service agency has been retooling programming to better meet community needs. Currently, the YMCA provides programming in schools like May through its Community Schools Program.
Community leaders, however, contend dismantling the member center is a prelude to permanently closing the 80-year-old facility. YMCA officials said the agency has been exploring options and partnerships to continue to provide affordable and supportive housing there. The facility offers residential housing for more than 200. But in the email, officials maintain the YMCA is in discussion with a potential buyer to purchase the building.
"We look forward to working with this potential buyer to ensure that any resulting deal provides for sustainable residential operations at Austin House in the years to come," McDonnell said in the email.
One Austin Y resident, who wanted to be identified as Rico, hopes the facility does not close. Rico, who has struggled with homelessness for years, said the Y has been a lifesaver for him by providing stable housing. If the facility does close, Rico sees himself back on the streets or in a shelter. The Y, he says, has helped him get his life together.
"I'm blessed to be at the Y, and I wouldn't want them to close because this is a roof over my head," Rico said.