Steve Wallace, CEO of the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston, looks at architectural plans for the YMCA's proposed move to Bates Mill No. 5 in Lewiston. He's shown in his office at the current YMCA on Turner Street in Auburn. Credit: Lori Valigra

AUBURN, Maine — A 150-year-old institution here has major growth plans, including a new $15 million fitness center in Bates Mill No. 5 in Lewiston and a $4.6 million Outdoor Learning and Education Center in Auburn.

“How can the YMCA stay relevant?” Steve Wallace, CEO of the YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston, said to a reporter during a recent tour of the YMCA’s main building on Turner Street in Auburn.

Wallace, a former marine wearing a tracksuit, exudes enthusiasm as he shakes hands with a man on a stationary bike and yells “hello” to professional wrestler Tony Atlas, who is working out in the weight room. Walking near the day care center, he points out a window at the barbed wire over the Androscoggin County Jail next door.

“If we do our job here, they’ll never make it over there,” he said, referring to the confidence-building exercises, first-aid training and education kids get at the YMCA.

Wallace, who is in his fifth year heading the YMCA, has plans for a family fun night that will run 24 weeks during the winter and a 13-week medical explorers course for kids to get an in-depth look at what it’s like to work in a hospital. Overall, he’s focused on making the YMCA a key part of the Lewiston-Auburn community.

The Bates Mill plan

The centerpiece of his plan is moving into a new, state-of-the-art facility in Bates Mill No. 5.

That plan is still subject to the YMCA and two other organizations signing a lease, and architect and developer Thomas Platz purchasing Bates Mill No. 5 from the city of Lewiston. Platz told the Bangor Daily News in October that he is close to buying the mill and signing the leases, and expects both to be done before the first of the year.

The first phase of the YMCA build-out, about 50,000 square feet, will be a full health, wellness and fitness center. The ribbon cutting is expected in 2023. The current building in Auburn will remain in use as a community youth center.

The second phase, which depends on additional funding, will include an infant and toddler learning center.

Looking over architectural plans drawn up by Platz, Wallace points to the gymnasium, which will occupy 18,350 square feet on the first floor of the mill. It will have four sets of bleacher seats totaling 460 seats, a basketball court and locker rooms.

Credit: Lori Valigra

The second floor of the new YMCA will have a walking track above the gym and an aquatic center with two pools. The larger, competition-sized pool will be 25 yards long. A smaller, warm-water pool for swim lessons, water walking and splash parties will sit next to it.

The aquatic center alone will cost $3.6 million and occupy 12,000 square feet, Wallace said.

The pools will extend down to the first floor. Wallace said that build-out is less expensive than digging 16 feet under the ground. Also, the pools can be maintained more easily.

“The new YMCA is a total $15 million project. We are raising money for it over the next two years,” he said. The fundraising has already started.

Even with some economists predicting a potential recession in the next few years, Wallace is not concerned. He said 8-10 high wealth individuals typically make up 85 percent of the funds raised, and they donate even during recessions.

Challenges ahead

Another key project is the 95-acre Outdoor Learning and Education Center in Auburn. Wallace likes to call it the “Central Park of L-A.”

The acreage, on Stetson Road in Auburn about 2 miles from the downtown YMCA, originally was planned as the new home for the YWCA when it was purchased in 2011 for $800,000. Afterward, the former management of the YWCA learned that the land was not buildable.

It was too hilly and would have cost millions to level, Wallace said. Plus, it was too far away from the downtown area for members to use regularly.

“The land purchase was controversial,” Wallace said. “People said the YMCA paid too much.” And there were the development issues.

A new plan went into place in 2014, when Wallace started working at the YMCA and when the former day camp in Poland declined to renew the lease.

The camp was moved to the Stetson Road property, which still is under development. Wallace said that saves a lot in transporting kids. It cost $28,000 a year to bus the kids to Poland but only $2,000 from downtown Auburn to Stetson Road.

“We’re about one-third of the way through the project,” Wallace said. “But we’re at a standstill on building right now. We’re hoping to find a sponsor.”

The camp already is in use. There is a 1.5-mile, ADA-accessible path, low-rope course, archery course and an outdoor basketball court. Wallace also is planning a day camping area and a BB gun range.

“We hope to give every seventh grader a free week at the camp,” Wallace said. “Seventh grade is a pivotal year. A 15-minute conversation can change the outcome of their life.”

Parts of the center are open to the public.

Wallace said the YMCA has been losing money the past two years because of a November 2017 flood that damaged the building downtown and ruined the old pool.

He has invested $618,000 to upgrade the building so it is usable for the next decade.

And by increasing membership dues over the past couple years, operations will be back in the black this year.

The YMCA has 130 employees and a $1.8 million payroll. It also has $2.9 million in reserve funds.