Efforts underway to save Sault YMCA

The gallery at Monday Night’s City Council meeting was full of concerned citizens, the vast majority on hand to find out whatever they could about the fate of the Sault Ste. Marie YMCA.

They didn’t go home knowing the dire situation was resolved – far from it – but they did learn serious efforts are underway to save the Y.

Before launching discussion into a city staff report on the YMCA, its finances, its programs and its infrastructure issues, Mayor Matthew Shoemaker told council and the packed gallery that earlier in the day the YMCA board had met and were “exploring a proposal” that could sustain operations of the long-standing health and wellness centre.

From left, Save Our YMCA co-organizer Kirsten Duke, founder Ali Dennie and co-organizer Dr. Teryn Bruni.

“There is a solution that was presented to the Y today that shows promise, but it will take some time to get through the various due diligence hurdles and to determine if it is viable,” said Shoemaker. “We do not have firm timelines at this point, but either the Y or the City will provide any information it can as certain milestones are reached over the coming days and weeks.”

Shoemaker said the due diligence will require the community’s help. He thanked the public for sharing their concerns and ideas, and making the Y a sustainable operation “will take the help of every one of those individuals and more.”

The Mayor said he’d received an “incredible number of emails, phone calls and social

media outreach” related to the YMCA the past few weeks. 

Ali Dennie, founder of the Save Our YMCA group said news of the concerted efforts to save the Y were welcome, if a little light on details.

“We had some updates prior to our presentation that the Y has been open to exploring options with the community. It wasn’t really a very thorough update. We’re still not sure what that entails, But it sounds like they (Y board) are open to coming to the table. I think we got a really good reception from councillors, too.”

“I think it’s a bit of a theme at this point that there are not a lot of details to be shared,” said Save Our YMCA co-organizer, Kirsten Duke.

“I recognize that there are sensitivities around specifics and around finances. I understand that completely. However, I think it is really necessary at this point to be more transparent with the community at large.”

The Sault YMCA announced it would close its doors May 15 and the property was for sale due to its aging building, a $1.5 million debt and high operational costs. The 85,000 square-foot building on McNabb Street was built in 1965, needs a new roof, new boilers, and other improvements.

The April 16 announcement caught most Sault residents by surprise and many wondered why the Y didn’t make the announcement sooner, rather than at the 11th hour.

The Sault Y’s interim Chief Executive Officer, John Haddock, told a public gathering April 17 he could not release details for real reasons.

Many also wondered where the City was, what it was doing to avert what they felt would be disaster should the Y close.

Ward 1 Councillor Sonny Spina praised the Save Our YMCA group for their leadership and called its members “tremendous advocates.”

“As the Mayor touched on earlier, everyone in this room has worked absolutely tirelessly on this,” said Spina. “You may not see right in your face every day the work that everybody is doing, but it’s important for all of you to know that that work is happening. We are not the decision-makers in this scenario. We’re not trying to lay blame, we’re not trying to say who’s responsible, we’re trying to say ‘Who’s going to fix it,” added Spina.

Ward 3 Coun. Angela Caputo also lauded the group’s strong public support for the YMCA and echoed Spina’s comments that the city hasn’t been idle.

“There was some misconception that city council and the City of Sault Ste. Marie were sort of leaving the Y high and dry. I can assure you, and you can see it in Mr. Lamming’s report. By no means was council ever sitting on their hands on this.”

The Save Our YMCA group’s slide presentation to council summarized discussions at its town hall meeting, Saturday.

The number one short-term request by the group calls for a more organized outreach to the local Y, YMCA Ontario and YMCA Canada. 

“There was a point where conversations had to happen, had to occur behind closed doors,” said Duke. “The announcement on April 16 really opened those doors. I think that any conversations that are occurring at this point, should be more in the open and should be something that the public has more information on.”

Save Our YMCA strongly encouraged council to establish a capital fund and an accompanying strategic plan to diversify the Sault’s social services in the long term.

“These types of services (the Y provides) really protect the community from a more systemic mental health problem,” said Dr. Teryn Bruni, a co-organizer of Save Our YMCA. “Although this closure is not on the City, it is on the City to ensure we have reliable types of services for youth and for seniors, because it will make our community healthier.”

The group has also requested a seat on the YMCA/Council working group, which at present includes city staff, the District of Sault Ste. Marie Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB), Community Living Algoma (CLA), three Sault YMCA board members as well as reps from YMCA Ontario.

Ward 2 Coun. Lisa Vezeau-Allen asked Community Services Director Brent Lamming if local school boards and post secondary institutions have been considered, possibly even a private recreation provider.

“While this is a good working group, I do see some gaps in there,” said Vezeau-Allen.

Lamming said additional partners were discussed at the working group’s first meeting.

“Some of the organizations that you raised would be great contributors,” said Lamming. “All we need is for them to reach out to us,” replied Lamming.

The Mayor said the working group is tasked with figuring out both short and long-term plans for the YMCA. He’s optimistic there will be news on short-term plans in time for the next council meeting.

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