South Charlotte

Building a healthy body and spirit

If you don't turn into the entrance, you can easily miss the large addition being constructed on the right side of the Morrison YMCA in Ballantyne.

Once you're facing the building it's obvious.

What's not obvious is that the expansion will mean two basketball courts, an indoor track and an athletic training center.

A sign on the lawn let's you know that Forest Hill Church is involved with the Y, but it's also not obvious that this $4.5 million project is being funded completely by the church.

The work is expected to be complete in September, with the first services to be held Sept. 11.

About seven years ago, Forest Hill - with more 3,000 attendees each week, led for 30 years by head pastor David Chadwick - realized something would have to change.

"We were operating at a growth profile that was making parking a challenge during peak season," said Max Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Forest Hill Church on Park Road. "One of the options was extensions."

Forest Hill Church placed extensions in Rock Hill, at Manchester Cinemas, six years ago and in Ballantyne, at Ballantyne Village Theater, one year later. The church sets up for worship services each Sunday and tears down before movie-goers arrive.

According to Baumgartner, the situation is not ideal.

"The temporary location of those venues makes people uncomfortable, and the quick setup and tear-down is a challenge," he said.

Yet the demand was still high to have a Forest Hill Church presence in south Charlotte. Forest Hill decided it needed to have its own permanent spaces and started a three-year campaign among its congregations. It was decided that Ballantyne would be the first extension to be placed in a permanent home due to their large attendance numbers.

The "So That" campaign raised more than $7 million, but it was not enough to buy property in Ballantyne and build a facility that would seat at least 1,000.

"Our thinking was that we would probably have to spend 10- to 15-million dollars for everything - it would have been big bucks," Baumgartner said.

Then Forest Hill officials talked to Steve Bowers, the community vice president for the YMCA of Greater Charlotte who works specifically with the Ballantyne Village, Steele Creek and Morrison Ys.

The Morrison Y wanted to expand its facility, but according to Bowers that project would have had to wait another five to eight years due to lack of funds.

It was proposed that Forest Hill would pay for the expansion, working chiefly from the floor plans the YMCA already had developed but also making the space perfect for Sunday services.

A retractable wall would allow the stage to remain set up for worship. The track circling the main room would help acoustics. An atrium would give visitors a place to talk before and after services without feeling rushed. Offices and storage areas behind the stage would be used by Forest Hill personnel.

During the week, the YMCA would be able to use the floor space to expand many programs, including basketball, group fitness and preschool.

"There is an enormous amount of synergy between the two organizations," Baumgartner said. "When you walk into the Morrison, you can see scripture verses all over the walls."

In return for funding the project, Forest Hill Church will have a 30-year renewable lease, without paying more money.

"I see this as a very positive win-win for both the YMCA and the church," said Bowers. "In a way, it's an extension of relationships that the Y has always had with local faith-based groups."

While many YMCAs lend their existing space to churches on Sundays, the Morrison expansion will be a hybrid space developed for worship and fitness. Bowers says he knows of no other YMCA in the country that has this kind of a relationship with a church.

For Forest Hill, the arrangement allows the church to maintain its legacy of being debt-free and enabling the next church extension to be started sooner than expected.

"We're in the midst of discussing the creation of a Fort Mill location," Baumgartner said.

Many current Rock Hill attendees come from Fort Mill, and even the Rock Hill residents have expressed excitement about moving to a permanent home, even if it will be a little farther away.

Forest Hill officials thought about finding another partnership in Fort Mill, but found nothing that would suit their needs; according to Baumgartner, however, commercial real estate is much more accessible and affordable there than in Ballantyne, though the church has not yet purchased anything.