Shannon Nickinson: Pensacola takes step to break unhealthy tradition

Pensacola has officially embarked on a new chapter in the 130-year history of a community institution of health and wellness.

The new downtown branch of the Northwest Florida YMCA will be — if all of the fundraising goals are met — a $15 million, 52,000-square-foot facility with an aquatic center, a gymnasium, a wellness center, group exercise space, a KidZone, a demo kitchen, and multipurpose rooms that can be used for a wide variety of programs and events.

The Bear, Levin, Studer YMCA will open in 2016. Work on the project will pump money into the economy through construction jobs. It will allow one of the largest providers of childcare in the metro area to improve and expand its services.

All of that is awesome.

Because this community is sick. And making a Y the centerpiece of our downtown is a sign we are ready to cure what ails us.

Many people spoke at the groundbreaking event on Aug. 13. The generous namesake donors — the Bear, Levin and Studer families — were thanked for giving the lion’s share of the $12.5 million already raised toward the project.

Board Chairman Jon Kagan spoke about how the Y can be woven into the fabric of a family’s life, and what that fabric means to Pensacola’s prosperity.

“It is so much more than a building and a pool and a gym,” Kagan said.

And that is why the Y will continue the push to raise $3.5 million more so that it can open debt-free.

“That’s important because we recognize that people in the community have need for what we provide but don’t have the resources,” Kagan said.

And that is why the Y’s partnership with Baptist Health Care and the Andrews Institute is a critical element.

Baptist’s President and CEO Mark Faulkner said the wellness center his hospital system will operate at the Y will expand their reach into the community and is a good example of the kind of partnerships among the community, the nonprofit world and the private sector that can “move the needle” on big community issues.

But Faulkner also framed it as a matter of corporate responsibility, especially in a  community that ranks near the bottom of most public health indexes.

“As the only locally owned not-for-profit health system in the community, this is our responsibility,” Faulkner said. “We own that.”

In deaths from Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cancer and a host of other issues, we lead other metropolitan areas in Florida.

We smoke too much, we are overweight, we are asthmatic, we have higher STD rates and teen births. We use the emergency room too frequently for things that aren’t emergencies, because too many of us don’t have access to primary health care.

As typical Southerners, too many of us eat a diet laden with foods that are bad for us, but we do it because those foods are cheaper than arugula and free-range chicken breasts.

Faulkner said at a meeting in January with the state lawmakers that in the Pensacola area 1 in 5 of us lack health insurance, and of those, 75 percent have jobs, but don’t have access to health insurance through work.

This new Y will most rise out a vacant parking lot to stand as an architecturally beautiful symbol of renewal and renaissance.

It will be a bridge between the residential Seville district and the bustling commercial growth of the Palafox corridor.

It also will stand for the investment we as a community can — and must — make in improving the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.

Smoking and obesity cost businesses in the two county area $800 million in 2013, according to the Partnership for a Healthy Community.

Annually the YMCA reaches about 12,000 kids and adults in wellness, childcare, sports, camp, aquatics and community outreach programs.

Which dollars were better spent?

Shannon Nickinson is the editor of, a news and commentary website in Pensacola. Follow her on Twitter Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

Shannon Nickinson


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