Community builds strength to save health facility

PHOTO: Tim Reckmann, Flickr CC-BY

In building fitness, our greatest obstacle is often ourselves. That’s true in building community, too. 

Here on the Iron Range, people aren’t shy about what they want. On social media, people demand more chain restaurants. Sports complexes seem to beget calls for even more sports complexes. These are the desirable outcroppings of healthy communities, the gold teeth of economic development. 

I also hear lamentation when a beloved institution closes or when the wrecking ball claims an old building. It’s a sign of the times! Shame on them, whoever they are. 

But where was everyone when the windows broke and the ceiling tiles began to crack? Wishing for a Chick-fil-A? What if “we” are “them,” the people responsible for finding solutions in our communities?

When the Mesabi Family YMCA in Mountain Iron closed last summer, the script played out predictably. “Too bad they went broke.” “Another good thing gone.” It seemed that the slow forgetting of another landmark would begin, another community institution returned to the dust.

But that didn’t sit well with some.

“I’ve always used the [Mesabi Family YMCA], and in retirement it became a more important anchor in my life,” said Sharon Chadwick when I talked to her last weekend. “Every trip to town became centered around going to the Y. [When it closed] I was really … despondent is not a word people usually use in casual conversation, but that’s how I felt.”

She wasn’t alone. She said members of all ages wondered why the decision to close came so abruptly with few calls for help. So, Chadwick and several others formed the Mesabi Fit Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining the affordable health and community programming recently offered at the Mt. Iron YMCA facility.

“We, as an Iron Range community 30 years ago, put a whole lot of effort into getting this thing built,” said Chadwick. “I was a young attorney at the time. I didn’t have much money to donate, but soon became a board member. Iron Range Resources put a bunch of money up — $1 million — that comes from our communities. I don’t know how much that $1.1 million is worth now, but it was pretty significant. We have all these investors, a community that took the facility for granted, that didn’t come back after COVID, but we believe they still want this [facility].”

PHOTO: Mesabi Family YMCA

The Mesabi Fit Coalition is participating in the bidding process established by the Mesabi Family YMCA Board, who still own the building. The goal is to establish an organization that follows the original mission of the Mesabi Family YMCA, including an aquatics center, youth programming, and scholarships for people who can’t afford memberships.

“We want to be able to show [the Mesabi YMCA Board], as well as prospective funders and partners, that there really is a groundswell of interest here,” said Chadwick. “In addition to the petition, we have been going before local cities and town boards in the area and they have been incredibly receptive. From Breitung to Cherry, it’s been great.”

Chadwick hopes that the community resolutions and petition signatures demonstrate that the community can still support a health facility like this. 

The Mesabi YMCA Board set a deadline of Oct. 31 for letters of interest on the facility. Board chair Jon Loeffen and Mesabi YMCA attorney Jen Urban detailed the process in a phone interview. They have communicated with six different parties regarding potential bids on the former YMCA building. Though they cannot disclose the names of all the potential buyers, two of these groups have already sent letters of interest, one of them being the Mesabi Fit Coalition. The other, Urban said, is a local nonprofit group. 

Loeffen said the Mesabi Family YMCA board is considering more than just the highest bid in selling the facility. They will also weigh the goals of the organization making the purchase.

“[It’s] exciting to see some of the parties involved and a lot of potential uses of the facility,” said Loeffen. “[Closing the YMCA] was a very tough decision. We understand what a contribution the Y and facility and programs made to the community. We’re hopeful that things can work out in a way that, in a relatively short time, it will be open again and the public can use the facility and programs that come with it.”

Urban, who mostly serves clients in the nonprofit sector, said one key factor will be the ability of the successful bidder to operate the facility.

“The operation of the facility is much more complicated than it would seem,” said Urban. “To run a facility like the Mesabi Y is a task that requires experience and a lot of money. I think a concern of the board overall is not just the desire and intent of the players, but also the ability to take it on without the risk of failure. There needs to be a weighing of exactly what needs to be done.”

That doesn’t faze Chadwick. She said that the Mesabi Fit Coalition is prepared to take on management of the facility or work with a successful bidder in some kind of partnership. 

“Even if we aren’t successful in terms of acquiring it, we’ll try to work in other ways to partner with others,” she said. “A lot of things can still happen after the fact. We just want to give it our very best shot and consider as many options as possible to make this happen.”

This episode provides an important lesson for our region as it goes through economic and demographic change. Community institutions don’t survive on tradition alone.

“[The Mesabi Fit Coalition board members] expect that if we get the chance to try this again it’s still going to be a challenge,” said Chadwick. “We have the benefit of hindsight and are counting on the fact that the community realizes they can’t take it for granted. We can’t expect to have these major assets that are expensive to run and just expect them to be here forever. It takes more than that.” 

It certainly does. Fortunately, the people of the Iron Range are able. 

If you’re interested, you can support the Mesabi Fit Coalition efforts by signing a petition at

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. joe musich says

    So this Y is 5 miles from Minntac. Where is their donation ?

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