West Side YMCA slated to close on August 31st

by Chuck Hoven

(Plain Press, August 2004) After a century of service to the Near West Side community, the West Side YMCA’s very existence is now in jeopardy. The YMCA of Greater Cleveland is accepting bids for the purchase of the West Side YMCA building at 3200 Franklin Blvd. Audra Kessler, Director of Marketing and Communications for the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, says bids are due on August 5 th. Kessler says the West Side YMCA will close on August 31 st. Y-Haven, which runs a residential substance abuse treatment facility, will continue to be run by the YMCA, but must find a new location to house the program by the end of the year, she said.

In late June the Greater Cleveland YMCA announced its decision to close the West Side YMCA. On July 13 th Greater Cleveland YMCA Executive Director Glenn Haley sent a letter to West Side YMCA members giving them the option to transfer membership to the Brooklyn YMCA, the West Park Family YMCA, the Downtown YMCA, or to cancel membership. The letter outlined a new service delivery model for the YMCA of Greater Cleveland that includes a classification system of membership branches, program branches and non-facility branches.

In the letter Haley said, “In the West Side community, we will be changing our service delivery model from a membership branch to a program branch. With less that 500 members, it is not feasible for this branch to continue as a membership branch. I am sure you are aware that because of the age of the building and the great need for repair, maintenance of the facility has become prohibitively expensive. This means that money that could be spent addressing critical needs in the local area is being spent instead on facility maintenance.”

The letter defined membership branches as “traditional ‘gym and swim’ facilities with a sustained base of at least 1,800 membership units.” A program branch – the new designation for services delivered in the Near West Side neighborhoods – is defined as “program facilities that may serve youth, teens, adults and families with primary focus on youth and family development and social services. These branches may include adult fitness programs.”

Kessler insisted that the programs of the West Side YMCA could be offered at other locations. She cited tumbling and martial arts as examples of programs that could be offered under the new program branch concept. When asked about Learn to Swim programs, Kessler said she didn’t believe that the West Side YMCA had Learn to Swim programs and went to check the records at her downtown office. She returned to the phone saying that the West Side YMCA had open family swim but no learn to swim classes.

Literature at the West Side YMCA clearly states it offers “swimming lessons for adults and kids for the first time in over nine years.” A check with a West Side YMCA employee confirms the existence of learn to swim programs. The West Side YMCA is the only indoor pool located in the Ohio City neighborhood.

Restoring learn to swim programs was one of many improvements made since the efforts of the Save Our Y Committee and the West Side YMCA Task Force negotiated with the Greater Cleveland YMCA a year ago to get a full time director for the facility.

Kessler was asked why Haley said the West Side YMCA had only 500 members, when staff reports over 700 members. Kessler said Haley should have said membership units. Family and couple memberships are counted as one membership unit.

Last year’s efforts by the Save Our Y Committee and the West Side YMCA Task Force resulted in a reprieve from closing the West Side YMCA in January of 2003. A facilitator worked with the organizations and the Greater Cleveland YMCA to help outline recommendations to be made to the Greater Cleveland YMCA on how to rapidly improve services, recruit membership, decide on a deficit reduction target for December 31 st, and establish a long range plan to improve the facility and make it financially solvent. The outline of the facilitator’s plan called for developing a revenue plan to keep the facility open for a two- to three-year bridge period while plans for transforming the facility into a viable entity were put in place. It called for cooperative information sharing between the Greater Cleveland YMCA and the West Side YMCA Task Force in order facilitate planning.

Two community meetings were immediately organized in late June 2004 in response to the new announcement by Greater Cleveland YMCA of plans to close and sell the West Side YMCA. At the meetings, residents said they felt they had been misled by Greater Cleveland YMCA. They believed that there would be time to implement plans they had worked so hard to develop. Not giving up hope, residents discussed the possibility of Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Ohio City Near West Development Corporation gaining control of the building and using it for recreation programs for the neighborhood with or without the participation of the YMCA.

When asked about opportunities for local development corporations to bid on the building, Kessler said both OCNW and DSCDO have received bid packages. She said the Greater Cleveland YMCA would welcome bids from the development corporations. Kessler said it is premature to say whether the Greater Cleveland YMCA would be willing to lease back the facility from the development corporations if they are successful bidders. The Greater Cleveland YMCA has offered such an arrangement to the Glenville Development Corporation in an effort to continue services at the Glenville YMCA.

OCNW’s new Executive Director Joe Mazzola says the Greater Cleveland YMCA did not send OCNW a request for proposal. Instead, he had requested the information. Mazzola said he talked briefly with Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization Executive Director Jeff Ramsey about the West Side YMCA property, but has not seen the Save Our Y Committee’s proposal to rehab the building. Ramsey, a member of the Save Our Y Committee, as well as a participant in developing the plan to rehabilitate the West Side YMCA, could not be reached for comment.

Mazzola said he would like to see the Greater Cleveland YMCA offer the same arrangement to local development corporations that they are offering in Glenville. He said the issue with the bid process now under way is the timeline. He was concerned that there was not enough time for area development corporations to put together a bid package. OCNW Board of Trustees member Abby Horn said, “It seems obvious that they (the YMCA of Greater Cleveland) want to sell the building as part of their financial plan.” The OCNW Board of Trustees is not scheduled to meet again until August 4 th.

On June 24 th 2004 the YMCA of Greater Cleveland Board of Trustees voted to close the West Side YMCA by August 31 st. On June 25 th the Save Our Y Committee held a meeting attended by about 75 West Side YMCA supporters to plan a strategy to save the West Side YMCA. Glenn Haley, executive director of the Greater Cleveland YMCA was expected to participate in the June 25 th meeting, but cancelled at the last minute. At a follow-up meeting on June 30 th at the West Side YMCA, Haley was in attendance.

At the June 30 th meeting Haley delivered the message to about 120 supporters of the West Side YMCA that under a new operating model services now provided by the West Side YMCA would be delivered through strategic partnerships with other agencies. He said the goal is to continue services as a program branch.

Concerned that potential partners in the community were being intimidated into not partnering with the YMCA to provide services, Haley emphasized that the community partners it is negotiating with “have nothing to do with the decision to close the West Side YMCA. That decision has already been made.” Haley said, “We negotiate with partners in good faith. Partners shouldn’t feel they are doing wrong if they partner with us.”

Haley said the emphasis of the YMCA would be on “people, programs and services. We don’t have money to invest in buildings.” Haley said that community partners would be needed in order to continue to provide YMCA programs in the neighborhood for children and families.

Residents asked, “How about partnering with the Save Our Y committee?” Resident Marge Misak asked where the Greater Cleveland YMCA’s commitment was to the partnership it had formed with the West Side YMCA Task Force to keep these programs in the neighborhood. She noted the huge subsidy the Greater Cleveland YMCA had received to rehab the downtown facility and said it was time for the Greater Cleveland YMCA to “give something back to the people in this community.”

Haley said, “We’ve done a lot. Done what we can. But it is not enough to save the West Side YMCA.”

Chris Warren, Co-Chair of the Save Our Y Committee said that the Greater Cleveland YMCA has refused to provide financial data to demonstrate what was responsible for the million dollar plus deficit it is projecting for this year. Warren noted that Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Ohio City Near West offered their assistance to find funding to rehabilitate the West Side YMCA on May 25. He said there was no follow-up to that offer. Instead the West Side YMCA was listed for sale.

Haley said, “ A capital campaign couldn’t happen at the West Side YMCA. There is no organizational capacity to raise money.”

Ward 17 Councilman Matt Zone differed with Haley on this point. He said “We have two of the premier nonprofit development corporations in Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization and Ohio City Near West Development Corporation. We have asked to be allowed to do something. The West Side Task Force developed a plan, hailed by the Greater Cleveland YMCA Board as a national model. Why not partner with the neighborhood and keep Y-Haven and the West Side YMCA here?” Zone asked.

Haley responded that the decision to close the West Side YMCA was made “in the context of the entire YMCA organization.” He said that the Greater Cleveland YMCA “had to look at ‘What assets do we have, and what do we do with them?’ We want to be in this community in another location so we don’t end up burdening a potential partner with capital or operating needs.”

Warren responded saying the building is an asset that adds value to the West Side YMCA programs. He said it is situated in the middle of the neighborhood, and that the cost to replace the building would be many times the amount needed to rehab the building. He noted the handball courts and the pool would be especially hard to replace. Also, the memories the building brings to people in the neighborhood would be hard to replace.

Haley insisted that the community talk with him about maintaining programs and services. He said he had to look out for the welfare of the entire YMCA system. “We have to live within our means, “ he said. He noted that the Greater Cleveland YMCA had $1.7 million in unpaid bills. Haley said his responsibility involved keeping up a level of service in all the communities served by the Greater Cleveland YMCA.

When asked to see how that deficit was generated. Haley said, “I don’t have to show those numbers.”

A West Side YMCA member noted that since the West Side YMCA was only contributing $60,000 a year to the deficit, selling the facility would not solve the problem. The member said, “Selling the facility for a million dollars of one time revenue would only pay the Greater Cleveland YMCA’s bills for the rest of this year and maybe half of next year. Then what are you going to do?”

Haley responded that the decision was already mad to close the West Side YMCA. “The reality is that this building will close August 31 st,” he said.

After listening to a few questions and comments Haley left before hearing all of the residents who came to testify. Ward 13 Councilman Joe Cimperman insisted Haley stay in a nose-to-nose confrontation. Haley then left the building.


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