DULUTH — Avid swimmer Sharon Chadwick was a faithful user of the Iron Range YMCA, relying on it for decades for both exercise and its role as a community hub.
When it became obvious it was struggling financially, and then subsequently closed in 2022, the loss was keenly felt.
"All of a sudden, something we had been used to using for 30 years was gone," said the retired St. Louis County prosecutor.
But Chadwick, and a core collection of mostly women — other retirees and working moms — weren't willing to lose the only YMCA for 60 miles in two directions. The grassroots group put in hundreds of hours, meeting weekly at a local food co-op and holding lots of late-night conference calls to strategize, recruit help and raise money.
They formed a nonprofit with a goal of buying the Mountain Iron YMCA building and opening their own program- and service-rich regional wellness center.
"They didn't take no for an answer," said Rep. David Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, and a member of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) Board.
The work is finally paying off. Mesabi Fit will open in January.
The group secured nearly $2 million in grants, state and county aid and donations, including a $1 million grant from the IRRR to buy the building for $700,000 and pay for upgrades and start-up expenses.
"These are powerful, talented women who put their skill sets to work," Lislegard said. "And the whole region is going to benefit because of this group."
The group, Mesabi Fit Coalition, had its share of struggles. It took time to be established as a nonprofit, so it relied on the Virginia Community Foundation as its fiscal agent for several months. The building purchase process dragged and the facility desperately needed work. Then they needed the right staff and contractors hired. Volunteers had to travel to about a dozen townships and cities around the Iron Range to ask them to support the project.
Without the help of the IRRR and other funding, the expenses to overhaul the pool and make other major fixes would have been too much to overcome, members said.
The boom and bust Iron Range has long lacked an abundance of resources for families, seniors and kids, and when something goes away, it's usually gone for good.
It's hard to raise money on the rural Range, which is dependent on "a couple of big mining companies whose leadership doesn't live here," said Gary Cerkvenik, a Britt resident and longtime lobbyist who helped the group. "You've got to have a good fundraising arm to make these things successful in a small community."
The backgrounds of the volunteers varied: an architect and attorneys, some with nonprofit business management or government experience, and some who had been employed by the Y or had knowledge of safety regulations and equipment maintenance brought the project together.
Mesabi Fit has made plans to avoid the fate of the YMCA, which in recent years had reduced its hours, had a largely older clientele and suffered financially when it lost members during and after the pandemic.
The YMCA of the North has shuttered several locations in recent years. In 2020, it closed fitness centers in downtown St. Paul, Lino Lakes and Prior Lake. In 2022, it shut down the Rochester Y and the Marsh in the west metro area, selling it to the city of Minnetonka. In some cases, like on the Range, some Y services were still offered elsewhere in the area.
But that hasn't been enough, volunteers said, especially with the only other pool in the area at the new Rock Ridge school, which has limited availability for community use.
Mesabi Fit is exploring ways to reach more families and include services for younger demographics, like an inflatable swimming pool obstacle course and cardio drumming, said Chadwick, who is president of the organization.
Plans are still in flux, but a 24/7 operation to fit the lives of miners, law enforcement and others who work mixed schedules is a possibility. Full-time staff members are already working and part-time employees will be hired next. The building has been refreshed, new equipment purchased and classes planned. Mesabi Fit will operate similarly to the Y, offering soccer, an aquatics program and community space for teens, seniors and events, with new options added in the future.
"If we would have had a clear idea of even half of what it was going to take, we wouldn't have gotten started," Chadwick said, laughing. "But it turned into something really very amazing."