Crews are putting the final touches this week on a yearlong, $6.7 million makeover of the former Northeast YMCA in White Bear Lake.

Improvements include converting its antiquated outdoor swimming pool into an indoor, state-of-the-art aquatics center, allowing the White Bear Lake High School girls' swim team to play host to home meets for the first time in memory.

The project also includes a new teen and senior center, expanded exercise facilities and new locker rooms. And a host of cosmetic upgrades have transformed the drab facility at 2100 Orchard Lane, which originally opened in 1971, into a modern Y.

"The YMCA you grew up with is still here," said Shane Hoefer, the Y's executive director. "It just looks different, but people walk in and their faces just light up."

It also has a new name: the White Bear Lake Area YMCA.

Swim teams get a home

The White Bear Lake High School girls' swim team is among the users who are all smiles.

With the indoor pool, which has diving boards and six lanes long enough to meet Minnesota State High School League requirements, the team was able to hold its first truly "home" meets this fall. Until this year, the team had to host its competitions at pools in neighboring districts such as Roseville, Stillwater and Mounds View because there are no swimming pools at any of the White Bear Lake School District's buildings.

"We've been waiting forever for a home pool," coach John Suchomel said. "This is just amazing,"

With a home venue, senior captain Julia Ruohomaki said more fans have come to cheer on the team, which has 43 girls this year, up from 35 a year ago.

"It's been exciting and cool to have the other team come to our pool," she said. "It feels like the home team advantage. It seems like we have a lot more energy."

Orange and black banners hang on the wall of the White Bear Lake Area School YMCA Aquatic Center, which was the largest ticket item in the upgrade and expansion.

The district pledged $1.3 million toward the project when it signed a 10-year agreement to lease water time at the facility, with an option to extend it an additional 10 years. The district also will be able to use the pool for water safety classes for second-graders and will have a space for the boys' swim team, which will begin in November. That's something White Bear Lake High has not had in 20 years, said Tim Hermann, the school's activities director.

"We are fortunate to be able to lease the water time and it's just down the street" from the school, said Lori Swanson, school board chairwoman. "We have the benefit of using it without the cost of upkeep. The cost savings to the taxpayer is huge."

The St. Paul YMCA contributed $1.6 million to the project, the city of White Bear Lake $2.725 million and White Bear Township $225,000. Private donations covered the remaining costs, Hoefer said.

Construction on the aquatic center began last November and included putting a roof over the outdoor L-shaped pool and adding a new pool deck and ramps so the disabled could more easily enter the water. It also included a divider that split the pool into two sections so the high school team could use one part of the pool without disrupting YMCA activities going on in the other.

More for seniors, families

It's not just the swimmers who are benefiting from the improvements. Senior citizens, the fastest-growing segment of the Y's membership, and families gained space for programs when the building was expanded from 35,000 square feet to about 67,000.

While the facility's popular water slide and outdoor zero-depth-entry splash pool remain, the Y's much smaller indoor pool was removed and the space converted into studios for fitness classes.

There are also updated locker rooms for men, women and families, a new coffee-shop-style senior/teen center, and a multipurpose room for community programming. The on-site child care area was doubled, and the entire 40-year-old building was made accessible for the disabled.

There also is a spacious new lobby near the front entrance and a workout room with bicycles and treadmills with private TVs that was relocated to a space overlooking the new pool.

"People don't want to spend time in a room they don't like," Hoefer said.

With the work expected to be completed this week, Hoefer said a grand reopening and ribbon-cutting will take place in the next few weeks.

Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824