'It's a legacy': Iconic Fort Mill recreation site now in new hands

It's a new day in Fort Mill. It'll just look a lot like some of the old ones.

Friday marks an ownership change at one of the town's most iconic sites. The recreation complex on Tom Hall Street now belongs to the Town of Fort Mill, after four decades as a Leroy Springs & Co. property.

The Upper Palmetto YMCA will operate the site, similar to how the Anne Springs Close Greenway staff ran it in recent years.

Between the town, YMCA and Fort Mill School District — the district is adding swimming pool space to create a larger aquatic center — the complex will have three major stakeholders in seeing it remain a viable option for recreation.

"It's going to be a unique partnership," said Brown Simpson, director of the town parks and recreation department. "That's the biggest thing. Between all three of us, we're going to be able to offer a quality facility."

The YMCA at the Complex is a 60,000-square-foot site with basketball and tennis courts, pools, a weight room and other facilities.

The town entered into a 10-year lease in 2010 to manage sports programs there. Around the same time that lease was signed, there was conversation about the future of the complex.

In 2014 Tim Patterson, president of Leroy Springs, wrote a letter to members saying his company running the site beyond 2020 wouldn't be sustainable. The company would focus instead, according to the letter, on the Greenway as a premier recreation site in town.

Members worked to save the complex, while elected officials eyed options. Last fall, a joint announcement between the Greenway, town, school district and YMCA revealed a new plan.

Leroy Springs would donate the complex and some surrounding property, valued at more than $10.3 million, to the town. The school district would use money from its 2015 bond referendum, which included $9.9 million for an aquatic center, to add a 50-meter competition pool.

Other parts of the property, including where the baseball fields are now, would remain with Leroy Springs and likely may be developed at some point.

"Council worked hard to make that happen," Simpson said. "A lot of people worked hard on it. It'll be great for the town. It's a new day in Fort Mill."

Heather Stahr went to preschool at the complex, spent summers there playing and watching her dad play softball. She started working there two decades ago and met her husband sorting road race results for the company. So, she knows the place.

"This is like home," said Stahr, member services manager for the Greenway. "It's still like home."

Her family, like many who have been in Fort Mill for decades, has "a lot tied into the complex."

Stahr said it's a little bittersweet, moving her office and the rest of the front desk to Greenway headquarters at the Dairy Barn entrance. But she is excited for the continued, even expanded, recreation options both groups can provide.

"The Greenway is going to be more outdoor-focused," Stahr said. "We're going to still work together, just in a different capacity. We both have something to offer each other."

Stahr envisions complex and Greenway members taking laps at the pool, then stepping outside to hit the trailhead on the edge of the property.

Many complex members have come in the past several weeks — Anne Springs Close among them — to continue membership with the YMCA. The common response from long-time members is thankfulness, Stahr said.

"We're so excited that this place is going to continue, because there's so much life here," she said. "There's such a family environment."

Decades before Fort Mill had a town parks and recreation program, residents played their youth sports and church league softball and so much more through the Leroy Springs programs started by Close's father, Elliott Springs. The early days of those programs focused on recreation for textile mill families.

"He was a pioneer in the parks and recreation industry," Stahr said. "They really set the bar for recreation. We owe so much to Ms. Close and her family."

Close then took the ball and kept it moving, with the dedication of the 2,100-acre Greenway in 1995.

"It's a legacy," Stahr said.

John Gordon, executive director for the Greenway, sees that legacy continuing as a "win-win for all parties" emerged. The biggest winners, he said, are Fort Mill "community members who will benefit from the operations of the complex for generations to come."

"For the last 41 years, the complex has been an important part of the fabric of this community, welcoming residents of all ages to swim, dance, play ball, work out, socialize and meet up with like-minded neighbors," he said.

For complex members staying on now that the town is in charge, big changes aren't expected.

"We do not anticipate any immediate, significant changes to the facilities and programs that will affect members, aside from the way that you register and pay," said Erika Bell, COO with Upper Palmetto YMCA.

YMCA, town and Greenway staff have worked "countless hours" to make sure the transition is smooth.

"We have been diligently working with the current staff members to onboard them as employees of the YMCA, training the employees on our software, explaining work flow and processes, updating our website, encouraging current Complex members to complete the proper paperwork to move to a YMCA membership," Bell said.

Camps and programming should be similar, if not the same, as before the ownership change. There may be additional offerings moving forward, Bell said.

"We are on target to offer similar programs through the YMCA that have been historically offered at the Complex," she said. "We are working to retain the same instructors and staff to insure members will see familiar faces."

A change members will notice is the availability of more sites. Since the YMCA will run day-to-day operations, membership includes access to 13 other YMCA sites in the local association and a nationwide membership program.

As for the school district's part, the aquatics addition is being designed and is expected to be complete by August 2019.

"We are very pleased that this partnership has continued to move forward and we are excited about the opportunities this facility will offer to our students and the community as a whole," said Chuck Epps, school district superintendent.

The phone number will change. Some staff will move offices. Any large effort like this one, Simpson said, comes with a changeover period. He believes it won't take long, given common aims among the players involved.

"It's all about offering a quality of life amenity to the citizens," Simpson said.

As the newest member of the community, even the YMCA understands how important the complex has been for Fort Mill residents. And how it important it still can be.

"The overall response that we have heard from the community," Bell said, "is an appreciation for our commitment to the community to enter an operational agreement in order to keep the facility open."

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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