Open or closed, aging YMCA presents major cost

Sault Ste. Marie YMCA interim Chief Executive Officer John Haddock and board member Jake D’Agostini met with the public Wednesday afternoon after news broke Tuesday the Sault Ste. Marie “Y” will likely close May 15.

The 100 or so attendees, many of them members, some volunteers at the “Y”, came to express their disbelief, disappointment, frustration and their anger. 

The news of a May closing, many said, was sudden, and hard to take.

The prevailing question of most could be summed up thusly, ‘If the Y is in such a dire state financially, why are we (the public) only finding out about it now with the property up for sale?’

Haddock, with a long personal history attached to Y, told the gathering he understood their pain. Then he set about to explain how and why a Sault institution where so many had learned to swim, had been treading water for years and was now in desperate need of a lifeline but likely headed for closure.

“You can call the news stunning, call it shocking, call it surprising, call it upsetting. I mean, it’s all of those words,” Haddock told the gathering. “And it’s certainly not a decision we rushed to. If there was any fault it was probably (our) going as far and as long as we could, checking out alternatives and possibilities. We kept everything on the table as long as we could, until we hit a point where there was just no other option but to put the property on public sale and advise that we have to close our programs on May 15.”

“We’ve been struggling along for a little while now,” said D’Agostini, a lifelong Y member. “We’ve been trying to do whatever we could…to keep the Y running its programs as it has been, and like John said, possibly we’ve gone a bit too long, and this decision maybe could have been made years ago.”

Membership, said Haddock, once as high as 7,000, is now currently at 2,800. The aging building’s size – there’s 85,000 sq. feet of operating space – was once viewed as a plus, but now as too large for its own good. Haddock said operating costs are high, for heat, basic maintenance, heating the pool that, combined with reduced membership, place immense strain on monthly finances.

Haddock and D’Agostini opened up the floor to the gathering for a Q&A format.

A lady asked why the circumstances facing the Y had been kept a secret, when it fills a vital role for youth and adults, and seniors. The questioner said the Y plays a key role in the city for youth, offering them positive programs that help keep them off the street and out of trouble.

“When you’re dealing with the board, dealing with legal matters, other groups that are wanting to talk to the press about the future…it’s not like we can be public about what we’re trying to do. We were required by the groups that we are involved with, to keep it confidential.”

Sault Ste. Marie YMCA interim Chief Executive Officer John Haddock, right, and board member Jake D’Agostini.

Another lady asked why such “prime city property” is already up for sale, and could the “Y” hold off accepting an offer until options in the community have been explored.

Haddock, who was with the Y executive from 1990-97, said at that time, the place “was humming.” Retired for a few years, Haddock was “asked to come back to help out.”

As for possibilities that could stave off the potential sale of the property, Haddock said he would “absolutely” listen if “an angel investor” were to come forward in the next week to 10 days.  

“I think we can have those discussions,” said Haddock.

But he explained there are obstacles that exist today that weren’t around in the ‘90s, when membership was at 7,000. That membership total is down by 4,200, today. 

There’s also the matter of structural needs – capital costs – which Haddock pegged at $3 million.

“We have an aging building, we all know that,” Haddock told the crowd. “Most of the infrastructure is at the end of life. From the roof, to the boilers. So there’s (this issue of) generating enough money to pay your ongoing bills and there’s also the major capital bills. We’re talking millions of dollars to keep an old building going.

To Jake’s point, this situation didn’t happen six months ago. It’s been, over the years…it’s been going downhill.”

Marty Wyant spoke to the gathering of his days as CEO in 2009. Then, like now, the “Y” faced serious issues with high operational costs “just to keep the lights on.”

He said today, the “Y” building is quite unlike more modern editions in other cities which have far greater efficiencies built in.

Wyant said the need for a new building is inevitable. He said in his travels across Canada the Sault’s YMCA stands out. He’s concerned that what makes the “Y” special could be tough to transport into a new facility.

“The flavour, the feeling, everything that you get when you walk into a facility with “Y” volunteers, you cannot match it,” said Wyant.

Wyant, who grew up just a couple of blocks from the YMCA, said back in 2009, the operational costs were such that he could “see the writing on the wall.

Ymca 3

“Even then we talked about the cost to heat the pool, the cost to put in new heating systems throughout the building. It’s tough to maintain a building that’s this complicated. It’s actually a series of buildings. It’s like the old Collegiate High School. They added pieces on, but it’s very expensive to operate.”

There was a plan 15 years ago, said Wyant, which would have seen a new “Y” constructed where the parking lot is located. The old building would have been left open while a new “Y” was built. There was federal funding available, too, said Wyant, but ultimately the plan did not get the needed support as many “didn’t believe the YMCA would ever go away, but I thought its days were numbered.”

Wyant says if membership doubled, operations would become more viable, but officials would still be faced with “astronomical” day-to-day costs.

The financial picture doesn’t look favourable. Haddock says the axe hasn’t fallen yet, but he indicated time is growing short and made it clear there are no easy answers.

Ali Dennie, who has been a Y member since she was eight-years-old, spoke of how the closing of the Y would be a crippling blow to low-income families. She said she and her sister were able to take advantage of the Y’s subsidized programming, and both entered competitive gymnastics. 

Dennie is teaching gymnastics at the Y these days.

“My family would have never been able to have been as active as we were if it were not for the subsidies the “Y” offered to low income families,” said Dennie. “What will happen to the kids who cannot afford to go to programs elsewhere? We already have limited options for youth in our community. This closure would be catastrophic for the Sault for so many reasons. I am devastated, but I remain hopeful that this can be resolved without the closure.”

Ann Ciaschini, a Director on the Sault YMCA Board of Directors for nine years (2011-2020), says she’s shocked the Y is facing closure. A YMCA member for 40 years, she echoed Wyant’s comments regarding long standing financial struggles, and believes the public should have been informed of them.

“I suggested we inform the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie that the Y was at risk of closing and therefore looking for donors, be they individual benefactors, businesses, corporations etc.,” said Ciaschini. “I believe many members and citizens did not realize that the “Y” is a charity and that to keep it open required a healthy membership.”

With the public unaware of the financial difficulties, said Ciaschini, any real opportunity for funding intervention was lost. The public should have been told of where things stood at least six months ago.

“Had we been told, we would have at least learned of the dire situation and perhaps an angel or angels would have come forward as benefactors, donors, and supporters,” Ciaschini told First Local. “We are working backwards now because the damage will have been done. People will lose their jobs, their childcare, their rehab place, their safe haven…the list is endless. Maybe the end result would have been the same, but now we will never know.”

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