Hundreds of Tulsans attended the Saturday opening of a newly-renovated facility touted as “Tulsa’s backyard” as the city and its residents recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Herman and Kate Kaiser Family YMCA opened its doors Saturday with a slate of events that included a 5k run, canoeing, live music and a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open a new outdoor pool.
The 30-acre location at the base of Turkey Mountain — which was first purchased in 1953 and last renovated in 1968 — now hosts amenities such as nature trails, a covered outdoor basketball court, a zipline, and areas for disc golf and kayaking thanks to a $15 million fundraising effort.
Tulsa resident Kay Love said she was left “speechless” when she and her family toured the new additions.
“There wasn’t (a lot for families to do together) before, not at all,” Love said. “But now? I love it. It’s just amazing and I can’t wait to come back.”
The project began in 2016, said Greater Tulsa YMCA board member Mitch Drummond, after renovations were completed at the Tandy Family YMCA.
“The question kind of came up of what’s next,” Drummond said. “We had a fairly lengthy series of discussions, market research, presentations. We realized there’s a lack of services in west Tulsa for certain things, certainly around a healthy lifestyle and we realized we needed family activity.”
Before the renovation project, the location was focused primarily on summer camps and programming for younger children, Drummond said.
With shortcomings like a gymnasium that still lacked air conditioning before the project, YMCA of Greater Tulsa Vice President of Mission Advancement Kyle Wilkes said the property was long overdue for a rework. Wilkes said he is hopeful the completed project can be a model for other national locations to use for turning a smaller summer camp location into a “true membership YMCA.”
The YMCA’s vision for the space tied heavily into its location near Turkey Mountain and the opportunity to help Tulsans stay connected to nature, Wilkes said.
“We wanted to do this in a way that was going to be respectful of nature and be conducive to this type of environment,” he said. “For example, if you look at our lodge, we’ve got big windows, it’s made of stone, there’s landscaping to not institutionalize the building, but to make it fit nicely in a place that nature deserves.”
Despite the uncertainty that accompanied the early months of the pandemic, the project broke ground in May 2020.
“We sat down with our builders and our architects in the beginning and had the conversation (about) if we want to undertake this during the pandemic,” YMCA of Greater Tulsa CEO Ricki Wimmer said. “We moved forward — and I’m glad we did, because I know this would have been much more difficult now, and much more expensive.”
The cost of the materials needed in projects like the YMCA renovation remains elevated, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Commercial Construction Index, with 43% of contractors still concerned about the price of lumber and steel. The project managed to avoid complications due to increased material costs, Wilkes said, and encountered only shipping issues to get materials to the project site.
The YMCA’s 10,000 square-foot event center will also contain a catering kitchen. In an August 2020 interview with the Tulsa World, Wimmer called the kitchen a “critical” service in a county where 19.8% of children face food insecurity, according to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
Love said she hopes the center will become a vital part of community building in west Tulsa, especially as COVID-19 concerns wane, with fewer than 1,471 active cases of COVID-19 in the state as of June 6, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Other communities in Oklahoma and nationwide may soon see similar amenities at their YMCA chapters — the center’s new direction has drawn the attention of leaders at other locations, Wilkes said, to monitor the success of the Kaiser Family location and consider if it is worth emulating.
“We have been getting calls from all over the country, some other YMCAs, to be able to see what this is like. We had visits from I believe seven of our YMCAs throughout the state,” Wilkes said. “There’s a level of pride knowing that we’re creating these spaces to be able to serve people in ways that are this unique, (and we’re) certainly raising some eyebrows and getting people excited about ways to do things differently.”