Ron Nelson entered a YMCA for swimming lessons and walked out with a career.
In 21 years at the helm of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, Nelson has overseen major changes in the organization’s image, brand and facilities, yet the core mission remains: teaching caring, honesty, respect and responsibility to young people.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, it’s great that you work for the Y. It’s an organization that keeps kids off the street.’ My response is, that’s not our goal. Our goal is that they learn the values, so when they’re on the street, they make good decisions.”
When Nelson, a Pennsylvania native, arrived in Grand Rapids in 1988, he found a YMCA organization with outdated facilities and programs.
“Grand Rapids was a tougher nut to crack than what I thought, because the community had progressed at a faster rate than what the YMCA had,” Nelson said.
“The day I walked in the front door of the Y, the guy working at the front desk was smoking a cigarette. I thought, this is not a very good thing, for a YMCA to have the key contact person smoking a cigarette. The Y wasn’t doing things like child care. It was pretty much in that traditional gym-and-swim mode. … The image of the YMCA then was the old downtown building: It was tired; it didn’t have the energy. Families didn’t feel as comfortable as we would have liked them to have felt there.”
Nelson and the YMCA embarked on a new strategic plan. “We had this theory that our suburban branches were going to be really strong and help this poor inner-city YMCA develop, which was the old one, but we couldn’t quite figure out the magic bullet for that. Our studies didn’t really indicate much growth in that area,” he said.
“As it turned out, in our community, because of the business population and because of the college, that revenue mix has made this (downtown) branch solid. It could stand on its own.”
One day, Nelson was running with a friend who worked in commercial real estate when the friend asked whether the YMCA would consider moving west of the Grand River.
“We looked at it and decided to do a market study. And the market study came back very strong,” Nelson said.
The YMCA took an option on some property, but as it turned out, the city wanted the land to extend Seward Avenue NW and offered a swap. At first, Nelson said, he didn’t think the new site would work. “Typically, when we build a Y, we don’t do it on 3½ acres,” he said. “We want to have at least 10 acres. Well, we ended up going up.”
The YMCA ended its residential operation at the old building on Library Street. “We were very sensitive about that. We took an entire year and made sure we placed every single resident before we closed that building,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he used to run through the area where the $29.3 million David D. Hunting YMCA now sits at 475 Lake Michigan Drive NW and lament the condition of the old buildings there. “Little did I think that the Y would be here, in this location,” he said.
The 163,000-square-foot building, perched west of the Grand River and U.S. 131, and dominated by a wall of windows, opened in 2005. It was the first YMCA facility in the world to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, an achievement supported by the Hunting family, who provided the $5 million gift that jump-started the campaign that eventually raised $16.7 million.
“We got supporters just because it was LEED-certified,” Nelson said. “It helped us look at ourselves and say, ‘This isn’t a one-time wonder; we’re going to make a commitment to it.’ So our board has said all future new facility operations are going to be LEED-certified,” he said.
“When we opened the David D. Hunting YMCA, our brand just blossomed. People see this facility as a beacon now, when you’re traveling down the highway at night.”
The facility draws students and staff from Grand Valley State University’s nearby Pew Campus, downtown business people and condo-dwellers from across the river, and families, Nelson said. It serves as the home pool for Catholic Central High School’s swim teams. “It’s that mix that really has made this Y outstanding,” he added.
In addition, the new YMCA is a major child care provider and also provides classes in areas such as art, dance and music, he said. That was part of the organization’s decision to reach out to as much as 20 percent of the youthful population through programs in addition to sports.
“Some people don’t know that we actually serve more women and girls than we do men and boys. … People used to say, ‘Is that the men’s Y or the women’s Y?’ Yeah, there’s a difference, and the YWCA does a great job in this community, but it’s different than what we do.”
Before embarking on the YMCA’s extreme makeover, the local leaders visited successful organizations in Charlotte, N.C., and in Nashville, Tenn., which offered services in suburbs as well as in urban areas. “We found that these kids are at-risk in all neighborhoods; they just have different sets of problems,” Nelson said. “Even kids who have affluent parents get into trouble. We were not addressing the suburban issue.”
The focus on the downtown building has made some forget that the YMCA, with an annual budget of $22 million, runs other facilities in West Michigan, including: the Wolverine World Wide Family Branch in Belmont; the Southeast Branch in Forest Hills; the Lowell Branch; the Ionia County Branch; Camp Manitou-Lin near Middleville; the Caledonia Center Program Center; the Byron Center Pool; and the Visser Family Branch in Grandville.
The sour economy has put on hold plans for expansion and renovation for the Southeast facility. A $3 million gift disappeared when local trucking company Gainey Corp. went into bankruptcy.
Spartan Stores Inc. is putting $3 million into a new YMCA planned for Metro Health Village in Wyoming. The YMCA is about half-way to its $10 million fundraising goal for the Spartan Stores Branch. Originally, the plan was to open in 2008, but the poor economy pushed that back to 2011.
The organization has faced other issues, as well. A shooting outside the Hunting Y in March forced changes to the guest-pass policy and a youth program there. While fundraising has been strong at a record $1.3 million, the number of memberships has dropped. In the spring, the organization laid off 25 full- and part-time employees, froze executive salaries and trimmed health care and retirement benefits. A total of $1.5 million was shaved from the budget.
“We’re finding more and more that businesses want payback,” Nelson said. “It’s no longer, ‘I’m going to make a gift.’ (Now it’s) ‘I want to make an investment and I expect a return on investment.’ Well, we want to give a return on investment. That’s not only in lives changed, but what can we do to help that company, or make their employees more fit, or have opportunities to volunteer.”
Nelson grew up northeast of Pittsburgh. His father, Cecil, was an engineer for Alcoa and his mother, LaRue, was a stay-at-home mom and school librarian.
“I went to the Y as a young child. … I started go, I think, at the age of 8. After several miserable attempts, I finally learned how to swim at the Y, and that really was what got me where I am today, learning how to swim.”
Nelson met a man there named Bob Scott who became his mentor.
“Bob … was teaching me about self-confidence and achievement and being goal-oriented. Lo and behold, that sort of stuck with me,” Nelson said. “I ended up not only swimming for the YMCA, but … I swam for my high school, as well, and, because of Bob’s help, I was able to get a summer job at a pool as the head lifeguard. I went to college and swam in college.”
In the meantime, Nelson’s mentor had risen through the ranks and became executive director at the Y. “He always had time for me,” Nelson said. “He was building assets in me as a young man by this point, and I enjoyed just talking with him and seeking his advice. He made you feel like you were at the top of the world. I was a good swimmer; I wasn’t a great swimmer. But he gave you the confidence that you could try anything.”
Nelson earned a bachelor’s degree in math at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then decided to apply for YMCA jobs. He landed one in Chicago in 1972.
“I was much more people-oriented than numbers-oriented,” he said. “I’ll admit I’m a left-brain person, even though I have a math degree. I don’t like accounting, for example; I get bored with that, though I can look at financial statements and make sense out of them.”
Nelson then worked in Butler, Pa., and spent eight years as a senior vice president at the YMCA in Harrisburg before landing in Grand Rapids. Since arriving here, he has earned an MBA from Western Michigan University.
A veteran runner in 26 marathons, Nelson still runs at noon around the Y. He loves to swim, read and travel. He enjoys snorkeling, although he wasn’t thrilled with a shark he encountered in the waters of Fiji. Most of all, Nelson is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. He keeps a shrine to the Steelers in his office. He has seen the football team play just once on their home turf, but occasionally travels to Detroit when they are pitted against the Lions.