It may be too late for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but people who turned out to celebrate the opening of a natatorium at the Dryades YMCA on Tuesday predicted a few Olympic swimmers in the city’s future.
After more than a decade of planning, fundraising and construction — a period that included a fire, a major hurricane, and financial and construction setbacks — the Dryades YMCA finally opened the doors on a swimming complex and wellness center that will add health and prevention to the 108-year-old institution’s long-standing focus on education.
“We view this as a win for the entire community,” Chief Executive Officer Douglas Evans said. “Certainly, we’ll begin to reach out in ways we hadn’t been able to in the past.”
The Dryades YMCA opened in 1905 as a gathering place for black New Orleanians who were barred from patronizing YMCA establishments reserved for white residents.
It took its name from Dryades Street, now known in that area as Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard.
Because of its history, it has always maintained a different mission from that of other area Ys. Instead of health and wellness, the Dryades center historically has placed an emphasis on education and community engagement.
The James M. Singleton Charter School is on the same site.
For decades, the Dryades YMCA also was closely aligned with the BOLD political organization.
Fire destroyed the building more than 13 years ago.
Since then, the organization has slowly rebuilt, cobbling together $15 million from the state and private donors to pay for the renovation and overcoming construction delays that most recently set back the opening of the pool and wellness center by a year.
“In February of 2000, one Sunday morning, we all sat on the corner of Jackson Avenue and O.C. Haley and cried,” Evans said. “Since we lost our original building, we’ve been working to rebuild the infrastructure, and it just gave us an opportunity to expand our footprint and add a few more amenities that we didn’t have in the old facility,” such as the swimming pool.
At 80,000 square feet, the complete Dryades YMCA complex is nearly four times the size of the old facility, Evans said.
The complex includes the pool, a fitness center with dozens of cardiovascular and weight-lifting exercise machines and a gymnasium, where wellness seminars and group fitness classes will be held.
The YMCA will charge a $75 monthly membership fee.
The six-lane, 25-yard indoor pool on the first floor drew the most attention Tuesday.
“The natatorium will be of great use to our babies in hopefully getting them all swimming and into water safety,” said Melrose Biagas, principal of Singleton Charter School.
The school’s students will have access to swimming lessons and water safety training.
Children previously had to be transported to other locations to learn to swim, said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who went to the Dryades YMCA’s summer camp as a child.
Peterson pushed the Legislature to get the state to share in the cost of the YMCA’s redevelopment.
“It was just a matter of convincing folks and making the pitch that this was an important investment in infrastructure in a community that didn’t have a facility like this,” Peterson said. “We had to explain and express the value of it.”
The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place blocks from where an NOPD officer was shot in the leg Monday night.
Peterson reflected on the incident Tuesday and suggested that the YMCA could help to stem the tide of violence in New Orleans.
“There is a direct correlation between what we’re doing here at the Dryades YMCA and what we’re experiencing not only in Central City but all across our New Orleans communities,” she said.
The Dryades YMCA is not affiliated with the YMCA of Greater New Orleans, which oversees four facilities in the metropolitan area, as well as sites in Buras, Davant and Port Sulphur.
The Central City organization is what’s known as a heritage YMCA, said Gordon Wadge, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA of Greater New Orleans.
It is affiliated with the national YMCA of the USA, but chooses to operate independently of the metro area’s YMCA network.
However, the Dryades YMCA and the local network partner on occasion, Wadge said.
For example, they have jointly applied for a grant to offer diabetes prevention seminars for local residents.