Auburn wonders about its YWCA; other Maine cities offer lessons

Posted Oct. 30, 2011, at 12:34 p.m.
Swimmers are jammed in like sardines in the pool area, which shows its age at the Auburn YMCA.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Swimmers are jammed in like sardines in the pool area, which shows its age at the Auburn YMCA.
The Bangor Y's old Hammond Street site was up for sale in September, with several potential buyers, as the Y's in the city merged and expanded a single location.
Linda Coan O'Kresik
The Bangor Y's old Hammond Street site was up for sale in September, with several potential buyers, as the Y's in the city merged and expanded a single location.

AUBURN — The Auburn-Lewiston YMCA is taking a leap of faith.

Its first splash came on Sept. 14, when the century-old institution bought a wide, 93-acre tract of woods and fields overlooking the Androscoggin River. Two weeks later, leaders announced plans to build a complex on the property, with a pool, child-care facilities, fitness areas, a day camp and far more parking than its aging center in Auburn’s downtown.

The cost: $15 million.

How much money have they raised so far?

“Very little,” said YMCA Executive Director Brian DuBois.

Plans call for a feasibility study — meant to peek into the wallets of likely donors — but it hasn’t yet been commissioned and leaders expect a poor forecast.

“We’re not optimistic that it’s going to come back terribly favorable,” DuBois said. The economy is tough and Lewiston-Auburn people are buying few luxuries.

But the generosity of local people and their commitment to the YMCA cannot be measured on a study’s spreadsheet or charted on a computer slide, he said.

People will donate, DuBois insisted.

The alternative is the slow death of an institution that survived the Great Depression, urban renewal and the Village People.

The YMCA must change, board member Stephan Myers said.

“Yes, it is a leap of faith,” Myers said. “But, gosh, if you don’t make a leap, you’ll never make it.”

Struggling and survival

Currently, the YMCA has about 2,200 members, employs a staff of about 100 and has an annual budget of more than $2 million.

Monthly membership dues — $35 for adults and $52.50 for families — account for only 20 percent of the YMCA’s annual revenue, DuBois said. Most of the bills and salaries (about half are part-timers) are paid by contributions, fees on specific programs and offerings, and child-care services.

The YMCA figures it reaches about 2.2 percent of local households. When compared to other YMCAs, the number is small. It ought to be closer to 5.7 percent, DuBois said as he walked the Y’s halls recently.

The four-story building — which has three stories above ground and one below — seems tired compared to some Maine cities’ more modern facilities with their sunlit exercise areas, gymnasiums and wide pools.

The Auburn Y’s pool is in the basement. It’s only three lanes wide and the room feels almost cave-like, as if its water comes from an underground aquifer.

Building systems such as heating and plumbing are inefficient. Exercise rooms are overstuffed with machines and the structure’s only elevator, made for freight rather than people, stopped working decades ago, DuBois said.

And the parking areas are skimpy.

Looking for convenience

The people who use the YMCA — those looking for a workout, kids learning to swim and parents seeking child care — generally seem to like the plans.

The Sun Journal talked with 20 people who regularly attend the YMCA. Only one, a mother who lives on Hampshire Street, criticized the plan.

Others liked the chance to park with ease, swim in a larger pool or work out in more pleasant surroundings.

“I like the facility, but if they can improve and get bigger, that’s even better,” said Janice Callahan of Auburn.

However, Jennifer Jacobson of Auburn worried about how she would manage child care for her daughter before and after school when the facility moves to its new location 2 miles away.

“I think it’s going to be great for the Y itself, but I think it’s going to put a lot of people out,” said Jacobson, who lives around the corner from the YMCA.

The distance isn’t as far as it seems, DuBois said. Most people seem to think the new site is at least 3 miles away. DuBois measured the distance at 1.9 miles. A Sun Journal vehicle measured it at an even 2 miles.

Jacobson, who doesn’t own a vehicle, wonders who will care for her daughter when the Y moves.

“It’s going to be a huge inconvenience,” Jacobson said. “It’s going to rain down on my world.”

Where the city fits in

Others worry about what it might mean for Auburn.

Jonathan LaBonte, the only candidate on the city’s November ballot for mayor, said he worries that elected leaders have not been part of the planning process. None was asked to attend a September news conference that also included YMCA staff, volunteers and a number of potential donors.

“The Y needs the city, just like the city needs the Y,” LaBonte said. “We should look at the community’s overall need for recreational facilities.”

LaBonte cited the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Auburn Public Library as an example of what can be done with both private and public support.

DuBois said he plans to gather area leaders for an event next spring, but LaBonte wants discussion to begin sooner.

The likely mayor plans to call for a meeting between the YMCA and the City Council soon after he’s inaugurated in January.

“It’s worth investigating,” he said.

Former Auburn Mayor Lee Young said she was disappointed by the move, but she understands it.

In the late 1990s, Young led the city’s effort to keep institutions in the downtown. She also serves as president of the YWCA of Central Maine in Lewiston.

“It was pretty much inevitable when you look at that building,” she said.

The aging structure and the YMCA’s not-so-secret plan to find a new home were on Young’s mind when she and other leaders of the YWCA met with DuBois and members of his board last year.

At the time, the YWCA was weighed down with debt and near closure. The women offered a plan to merge the two agencies — something the Ys in Bangor have done — but they were turned down.

“We could not get involved with their organization because of the debt load,” DuBois said. “That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to partner with them.”

The only other YWCA in Maine is in Bar Harbor, which also has a YMCA.

Since last year’s trouble, Lewiston’s YWCA has reorganized and raised about $600,000 to ease its debt problem.

This spring, the two groups met and talked about working together, but nothing was decided upon.

Young said she wished the YMCA luck. She also figured that its mostly male leadership will have an easier time than the YWCA in reaching local business leaders, most of whom are men.

“It’s going to be a big challenge for them to be able to raise that kind of money,” Young said. “But also, I live in the world of reality. I’m a woman who has raised money for various things over my lifetime. I know it’s going to be easier for them, in the fact that they’re going to have a lot of men out in the community going from business to business. That makes the solicitation process a little bit easier.”

Romance of the Y

DuBois and other YMCA leaders will miss the old building at 62 Turner St., with its brick and ivy facade.

The executive director was a boy when he started going there, entering on the right-hand door, because the left was for the men, In those days, the main floor had a pool table, a three-lane bowling alley and dozens of rooms upstairs for short-term housing for men.

“There’s a romance to it,” DuBois said. “It was a different community, though.”

The pool tables and bowling alley have been replaced by treadmills, elliptical machines and classes in pilates. In 1995, the last of the upstairs rooms for men that were once a staple of all Ys were removed to make room for after-school programs and infant care.

Meanwhile, Y’s in other Maine cities are faring well. Here’s a look around the state:

Bangor

The Bangor YMCA is thriving with a newly completed $2.2 million renovation and plans for a 20,000-square-foot expansion.

It was made possible by merging the city’s YMCA and YWCA in 2008, Chief Executive Officer Mike Seile said.

“A long feasibility study determined that the YWCA building was better-suited for future renovations and expansion,” he said.

Like other newer Maine Ys, it has two pools, one for competitions and another for therapeutic work. There is a cardio fitness center and a weight room, a wing dedicated to child care and a large youth-mentoring program. The institution also operates three summer camps.

Augusta

This city’s old YMCA building with its wide front lawn and columned exterior was torn down in September. It had been empty for five years.

“In 2006, we built roughly a $10 million facility right across from the state Capitol building,” said Mark Yerrick, chief executive officer of the Kennebec Valley YMCA. Since then, the nonprofit organization has been thriving.

“We were averaging about half-a-million dollars for membership (revenue) and now we’re averaging close to a million,” he said.

The new YMCA has a dance studio, an indoor track, a racquetball court and a gymnasium named for benefactor Harold Alfond.

There is a satellite branch in Manchester with fitness and group exercise rooms, a track and locker rooms. But the major amenities are in the downtown Augusta location. It includes a small, therapeutic pool and a larger one with plenty of room.

“We have an eight-lane competition swimming pool, which is twice the size of what we had at the old Y,” Yerrick said.

Bath

The Bath Area Family YMCA spent decades in this city’s downtown, its brick structure filling a corner of Front Street.

However, in April 2001 a new, $7 million, 58,000-square-foot facility opened beside a residential neighborhood on Centre Street.

It sports an eight-lane, competitive swimming pool, a warmer therapy pool, an indoor track, racquetball courts and other amenities.

When it opened, the YMCA membership doubled, Executive Director Sabrina Murphy said.

“There was a huge, huge instant growth in membership,” she said.

Portland

The Cumberland County YMCA oversees facilities in Portland, Freeport and New Gloucester, serving about 10,000 people. There was almost a fourth branch.

“In 2003, we did a feasibility study and started a capital campaign to build a Y in the town of Scarborough,” said Helen Brena, chief executive officer. “That was not successful. At that time, there wasn’t the donations available to raise the dollars we needed to build the facility.”

They also figured that the three facilities already covered the county, each with unique services and amenities.

“It was for the best that that didn’t happen,” Brena said of the Scarborough initiative.

The county YMCA built the Casco Bay branch in Freeport in 1996, specializing in child care for children while parents worked out and adapting to the needs of people with mental or physical handicaps.

Around 2000, when the Libra Foundation was making its renovation to the Pineland Center in New Gloucester, the county Y added that branch as a way of incorporating the center’s outdoor trails. That location, the smallest of the three, also has a bowling alley.

And in 2006, the Portland Branch reopened its Forest Avenue location following a $4 million renovation. Among the specialties are a squash and racquetball court and a men’s residence program, aimed at helping homeless men find permanent housing.

Like the YMCA in Auburn, it is located on a downtown lot without room to grow. Adding the branches was a way of working around the problem. For example, the New Gloucester branch uses the outdoors for its “Walk to Run” and Nordic walking classes, which is impossible at most other Ys.

“Each facility has something unique, but they also have things in common,” Brena said. Each branch has fitness equipment and at least one pool.

(c)2011 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

SEE COMMENTS →

ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business
ADVERTISEMENT | Grow your business

Similar Articles

More in Health