Local attorney reflects on origins of Lakeshore Fitness Center/YFCA


Guest article by Nancy Stier
Friends of Muskegon Lakeshore Fitness Center

He’s one of thousands of Muskegon County residents who rely on regular exercise at Muskegon Community College’s Lakeshore Fitness Center to fend off disease and preserve their health. But John “Jack” Briggs III is more invested than many other patrons who worry that the center’s financial problems may shorten its life. He played a pivotal role in the center’s construction 40 years ago, when it was a Y Family Christian Association.

As a young attorney specializing in real estate, Briggs was president of the Muskegon YFCA’s board when a massive two-year fundraising drive was conducted in 1977 and 1978 to finance the existing building. The campaign eventually raised over $3 million for construction of the center bordering Muskegon Lake at 900 W. Western Ave. Muskegon had then outgrown the YMCA quarters at 297 W. Clay, following a 1973 merger of the community’s separate men’s and women’s Y organizations.

After witnessing the success of that complicated process of funding a community gathering place promoting public health, Briggs thinks another capital campaign like the one Muskegon County held then might be successful.

Throughout the fitness center’s existence, which began with its dedication on Oct. 1, 1979, it was never totally self-supporting, according to Briggs. To keep its operations afloat, it always needed charitable contributions from United Way drives or internally coordinated campaigns. In 2015, the Y’s board decided it couldn’t carry that load any longer and sold the building to Muskegon Community College for $1.17 million. Since then, the college has shouldered the financial burden of the building’s upkeep and operational deficits. Memberships increased in the past year, but don’t cover all expenses.

Due to the center’s budget shortfalls and unanticipated expenses at the aging building, some students and college staff have urged MCC officials to sell the fitness center. They complain the building has already cost MCC more than $4 million, for the purchase, operational deficits and unanticipated repairs. However, $4 million is much less than the minimum of $6 or $7 million college officials say it would have cost if the college built a new pool on its campus instead. Some MCC staff members argue the money invested in the fitness center on Western Avenue would be better spent on academics. MCC trustees assert promoting the health of the community is a legitimate part of its mission, but want the facility to be more self-supporting.

Friends of the Lakeshore Fitness Center, which formed in January to back Muskegon County’s only publicly owned fitness center, has tried several methods for improving the center’s finances. Some were aimed at boosting membership, with others targeted at fundraising. The Friends group advocates continuing the search for additional funding.

Briggs said he hopes college officials don’t give up. The fitness center is the place he and many others have exercised to maintain health throughout their lives. During the decades he worked as a real estate attorney and partner of the law firm Parmenter O’Toole, Briggs relieved stress by running the fitness center’s track. Now in his seventies, he relies on yoga classes to remain limber. To improve his balance, he recently experimented with the center’s new Tai Chi class.

If Muskegon County’s only publicly-owned fitness center eventually closes, “I don’t see any other entity that would step in and fill that void,” Briggs said. He feels the area needs a non-profit organization which focuses on preserving the health of community residents. For years, Muskegon County’s population has ranked near the bottom of Michigan’s 83 counties in healthy behaviors. There are 3,470 members at the Lakeshore Fitness Center, who come from ten different communities in Muskegon County located as far away as Ravenna and Whitehall. Many say they would quit exercising without an affordable place to go.

Launching an intensive capital campaign could be the solution to funding renovation and repairs at the center, Briggs said, adding a large grant would also be helpful. When the YFCA ran the capital campaign in the 1970s, competition for donations among the main locally-owned businesses in town accelerated giving, according to Briggs. The city had two very competitive Fortune 500 company headquarters – Sealed Power Corp., controlled by the Johnson family, and Howmet Corp. There were also three locally-owned banks and a credit union. All six cooperated to make the drive run smoothly. “They all had executives who assumed positions on the drive.” Muskegon County Community Foundation (now Community Foundation for Muskegon County) offered an incentive – 15 cents for every dollar   0contributed once $2 million was pledged, up to a maximum of $300,000.

Charles E. Johnson II was general chairman of the Muskegon YFCA capital campaign. Briggs said Johnson was perfect for the job “because he knew everyone... The Johnson family was very community-minded.” Pledges started flowing in immediately after Johnson assumed leadership.

“We enlisted the aid of the national YMCA to assist us in the fundraising,” Briggs said. Al Tyler was the national Y’s consultant. “He kind of laid out the game plan for us,” and “practically lived in Muskegon for the next two years ... He told us what we should be doing and occasionally gave us a good pep talk to get us back on track.”

When they first sought land, Y officials weren’t shy about asking for Muskegon City’s help. Carl Johnson Jr., who was president of the YFCA in 1975, made it clear that “We are a non-profit agency with very limited funds.” Thy asked the city commission to sell the Y a new property, preferably downtown. After eyeing two sites along Webster, the Y settled for its current site – much cheaper because it had been a railroad switchyard and was contaminated, according to Briggs.

Although the 7.8-acre’s purchase price was originally $80,000, Briggs said his recollection is, “The city simply gave us the property after we raised the money to build the Y.” Huge quantities of fill had to be dumped on the site to make it buildable. Initially, the water table was only four feet underground and pollution from previous industries needed to be capped with clay.

Today, there are fewer, large, locally-owned businesses here, but Briggs thinks a capital drive could still be successful. He says the average resident of Muskegon County is more affluent than in 1977. “I think more people who grew up here in my generation and my children’s generation are coming back to the lake,” Briggs said. “They like the more relaxed lifestyle,” and may be more likely to respond to a campaign to save the county’s only publicly owned fitness center, he added.


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