To truly understand the beauty of the Niles-Buchanan YMCA is to know the history of the town it serves.
Located on Michigan's southwestern edge, Niles is the state's oldest city and has a rich business tradition. Its commercial success, in large part, can be attributed to the railroad that allowed the community to transport its goods all over the country.
The town's future also will depend on trains, as a proposed high-speed connection to Chicago will open the door for future residential and business development.
Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Vintage Archonics opted to celebrate the town's railroad ties when it designed the 56,000-square-foot YMCA facility along the scenic St. Joseph River. The train motif is threaded throughout the recreation and wellness center, allowing patrons to enjoy modern-day fitness programming without forgetting their past.
"The location became a major inspiration," said Todd A. Wambach, president of Vintage Archonics. "We wanted the design to reflect the rich history of the city."
The building recalls the town's past with a contemporary adaptation of a turn-of-the-century railroad station. A large arch window mimics the form of an adjacent stone railroad bridge while providing dynamic views of the river from the fitness center.
Materials and colors were selected to blend into the downtown landscape. A large hand-painted mural was salvaged from the old facility and incorporated into the main lobby's décor. Light fixtures were chosen to enhance the image of an outdoor café, further emphasizing a streetscape feel within the building's circulation spine.
"There's also been a great deal of revitalization on the downtown," Wambach said. "All of that led to the architectural concept for this project." Though some residents wanted to preserve the original building for nostalgic reasons, the rest of the community clearly was ready for something new. The old YMCA had safety and accessibility issues, as well as limited space for cardio machines and other programming.
A study conducted prior to construction predicted that memberships would nearly triple at the new facility over a two-year period. Since its opening in December, the facility is on pace to shatter those expectations.
"New membership has been incredibly successful," Wambach said. "The response has been very impressive."
The project, however, was not without its obstacles. Planning for the new building began in 1999, when YMCA officials first looked to expand the current facility. Faced with limited land to build on and an aging structure, the city of Niles offered to donate a brownfield site near the river. Brownfields are parcels of land that have been developed for industrial use, polluted and abandoned. Redeveloping these sites offers revitalization opportunities to many urban areas and even many smaller downtown districts.
Though the parcel would require a significant cleanup effort, the YMCA accepted the offer, and plans for the new facility were begun.
"There were a lot of different challenges involved with the project," Wambach said. "The budget is always a challenge—trying to get the most building for the dollar."
In the end, the $8.15 million facility provides an incredible recreation experience without breaking the bank. It features a 5,000-square-foot fitness center, a high-school-sized gymnasium, a competition pool, a therapeutic pool and a studio space for aerobics and dance classes. A large, elevated track encircles the fitness center and gymnasium, allowing for dramatic views of the interior and exterior.
"We were able to put together a project that's become a jewel in our community," YMCA Executive Director Bret Hendrie said. "This shows that a small community can accomplish big things."
The facility's success also lies with the YMCA's willingness to form partnerships. In addition to the city of Niles, officials also joined forces with Lakeland Regional Health System to enhance the wellness experience.
Under Lakeland's guidance, the building offers outpatient physical therapy, rehabilitation, speech therapy, water therapy and sports medicine services. Both the YMCA and Wellness Center staff share the therapeutic and Olympic-sized pools, as well as the running track and the fitness center.
The partnership, in addition to providing important services, also bolsters membership, as patients make the natural transition from rehab to full-fledged Y patrons.
The community has had a tremendous response to the facility. Membership grew by nearly two-thirds less than three months after the new facility opened its doors. Its presence also plays a critical role in the downtown's redevelopment.
"It has been a very positive thing for the community," Wambach said. "A win-win for everybody."