By Shereen Siewert

WAUSAU, Wis. — A proposed $19 million renovation plan for the Woodson YMCA is generating plenty of excitement in Wausau, but some longtime members are upset about a plan to create a new, co-ed hot tub to replace single-sex whirlpools currently located inside the facility’s locker rooms.

About 150 members signed a petition protesting the plan. Currently, whirlpools are situated just a few feet from the steam room and sauna in both the women’s and men’s locker rooms and are typically considered “clothing optional.”

In December, YMCA Director Bryan Bailey posted a response to the petition that explained the reasons behind the planned change.

“Why would we do this? The main reason is safety,” the letter read. “Over the last few years, we have had numerous instances of individuals becoming lightheaded and passing out in or near the whirlpool. Many times, it is because of overuse of the steam room and whirlpool in combination. We have been fortunate to date that another individual or staff member has been able to witness these situations and help prevent a more tragic outcome, such as a drowning. The problem is we do not have staff in this location at all times and members are not always with others while in the whirlpool.

“We are not trying to change the culture of the men’s locker room,” he wrote. “We are looking at this purely from a safety standpoint. Bodies of water can be dangerous and should have supervision around them.”

In his letter, Bailey said he would hate to see a tragedy happen at the YMCA that could be prevented. Further, Bailey stated, the national YMCA strongly recommends not having whirlpools in locker room areas, as does the organization’s insurance company.

Jerry Buerer, of Wausau, is one member who signed the petition. Buerer has been using the facility for about 16 years, and is openly questioning the perceived risk involved in keeping whirlpools in locker rooms.

“I’d like to see a bill of particulars on any serious accidents associated with the pool the last five or ten years,” Buerer said. “I do know there has been a heart attack or two in the handball/racket ball courts this year, certainly more serious cases than any health issues associated with the hot tub, yet I see no attempt to close those facilities.  If records are kept of injuries in the various facilities of the Y, from what I have observed over the years, the basketball courts are as dangerous as any facility, yet I observed no effort to close them down.”

Bailey, in an email to Wausau Pilot and Review, said the board voted to remove the whirlpools from locker rooms at the Wausau Branch based on safety and liability reasons only. The new whirlpool will be built by the north pool and is expected to open in early April.

Very few YMCAs still have whirlpools in locker rooms, Bailey said.

“The national YMCA and our insurance company both recommend not having whirlpools in locker rooms,” Bailey said. “Where there is water we feel we need to have lifeguards.”

In an interview, another member, Rev. David Faulkner, urged YMCA leaders to reconsider their decision. Instead of closing the locker room whirlpool, Faulkner suggest promoting it “as a unique place for men to enjoy the health benefits of hydrotherapy.”

“The tranquil setting provides patrons with a unique space to think and at other times to visit with friends,” Faulkner said. “Many patrons of the whirlpool do not want to have to be bothered with remembering a swim suit, then bringing home a wet swim suit that must be laundered and repacked for the next day’s visit. Presently, the YMCA offers many great spaces for men and women, young and old to interact. Removing the men’s whirlpool will remove a greatly valued space where men can enjoy the YMCA’s facilities privately.”

Paul Henning, a Wausau resident who uses the YMCA almost daily, said he rarely uses the hot tub unless he has a specific injury to address.

“But, I can’t help but to be deeply saddened when I overhear our most long term, senior gentlemen members lamenting the loss of their cherished hot tub,” Henning said. “I feel especially bad for that cohort, at this stage in their life. Their profound love of this facility is very obvious to any observer. It’s truly a shame for them to deal with this, when there is really no good reason to abandon a perfectly working asset. It makes no sense.”

In his response to the petition, Bailey insisted the YMCA is not trying to change the culture of the men’s locker room.

“Our Board respects all of our members concerns but sometimes has to make tough decisions in the best interest of the Y,” Bailey told Wausau Pilot and Review.

But some members say the locker room has become something of a social club, a valued resource to enjoy with trusted friends.

“So many patrons enjoy this unique and positive feature of our YMCA,” Rev. Faulkner said. “Please hear the voices of so many and keep the whirlpool open as a unique feature of our YMCA.”