By Barney Blakeney
Downtown Charleston’s changed so much in the past two or three decades it’s hardly recognizable to many over age 40. One iconic institution that hasn’t changed much is the Cannon Street YMCA. But it too is about to change.
The YMCA at 61 Cannon St. is the oldest continuously operating YMCA in America. Established in 1866 as a resource for newly freed Blacks, it has withstood the tests of time through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the post-Civil Rights Movement. It has been a home away from home for generations of Black children and adults – its gymnasium serving as event center, dance hall, a summer camp venue and many other uses. During its early years, the Y operated out of churches, businesses, meeting halls and private homes. Its proponents were committed and in 1950 the building at 61 Cannon St. was constructed.
But next year, the Y is expected to move to a new facility in the Cane Bay area near Summerville. Changes downtown makes the move necessary, said YMCA CEO Paul Stoney. The YMCA always has been open to serve people of all races and ethnicities, but natural forces have determined its course.
Locked in with no room for expansion, the Cannon Street facility has outlived its usefulness, said Stoney. The new 54,000-square-foot Cane Bay facility will anchor 69 acres where an indoor swimming pool surrounded by multi-purpose fields and courts will be located. The facility will house a 5,000-square-foot Berkeley County Library branch and a venue for performances. The land and its $24 million price tag all come from donations and partnerships.
Last month local business leader, Carolyn Hunter pledged $250,000 to the new Cane Bay Family YMCA to help finish the facility that is about 85 percent complete and is slated to open early fall. Hunter owns C&A Unlimited Inc. a company that operates McDonald’s franchises in Ladson, Moncks Corner and Summerville. Hunter also serves on the Y’s fundraising committee. MU Alpha Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. also donated $10,000.
Stoney said the new facility represents more than physical change; it also represents change in the Y’s financial viability. Remaining downtown has been costly, he said. The support system that kept the Y vibrant some 152 years has migrated from the peninsula while those who most needed its services were left behind. The new location offers opportunities for new membership and growth. But he emphasized that the Y will maintain a presence on the peninsula because the need for its programs still exist on the peninsula.
He’s excited about a new initiative to teach second graders swimming and noted drowning rates are most pronounced among African Americans, with children aged five to 19 being five times more likely to drown than their white peers. Hunter’s gift was made specifically to seed fund the new $5 million initiative.
Things are changing, Stoney conceded, but what will not change is the YMCA’s commitment to honoring its distinguished history. The YMCA was established so that people of diverse races, ethnicities and cultures could be served. That never will change, Stoney said.