If you need an example of dreadful public relations, you don’t have to look any further than the CEO and president of the Capital District YMCA, J. David Brown, and his handling of the apparently inevitable closing of the Washington Avenue branch. Since first announcing that the branch was slated for closure, Brown has been antagonistic and baldly condescending with the very people who have volunteered their time and energy to help save the branch, and seemingly duplicitous about working with the community. Now, as a final insult, he has told the Times Union that he is ceasing cooperation with the ad-hoc community task force because, “You just cannot win with an unreasonable group.”
It is hard to believe the claim that it has been the community members who have been “unreasonable,” and frankly we don’t. This group of Y members have been up-front with Brown from the very beginning: They wanted to save their Y, and they were willing to work. According to multiple people involved in that effort, it was Brown who behaved in an unreasonable manner. Task force member Chris Mercogliano has kept a log of the alleged “lies and examples of a disingenuous attitude toward the efforts to keep open the Washington Avenue Y, and the obstructive behavior that we have met.”
The task force had come to Brown offering assistance on a variety of fronts, but he told them that they could help only with the membership drive. When asked for a benchmark of new members that they would need to reach to save the Y, Brown threw out the number 700. At last count, the task force has successfully attracted more than 650 new members, but Brown has since changed his tune. It must be 700 new members net, he says, meaning that the members who haven’t renewed their memberships count against the new members brought in, effectively halving the number.
When Mercogliano wrote a letter to the editor, Brown berated the task force, threatening that he would stop cooperating if they spoke again to the press.
Task force members sought help from their elected officials, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Rep Paul Tonko, and state Assemblymen Jack McEneny and Ron Canestrari. When word came back to Brown, his response was to lash out at the task force, accusing them of meddling in the proprietary affairs of the Y.
Brown’s emails to Y members, including to Albany Common Councilman Anton Konev, have been cutting and derisive, not at all in the tone of a partner. And that, we are forced to conclude, is because Brown has never really been a partner with the community in this effort.
The latest bait-and-switch offered by Brown was his offer to sell the Y for $1 to the community, as though to challenge their commitment. When the task force took him up on the offer, he retracted it, telling them that he had started negotiations with two other organizations, instead, and that the community can talk to them. The list of insults from Brown goes on and on (and is available to read on our blog, metroland.typepad.com).
We are appalled by Brown’s belligerence and the considerable damage it has done to the reputation of the CDYMCA. Even more disturbing then Brown’s behavior is the Y’s apparent obliviousness to the importance of maintaining a multigenerational and multicultural community center in the heart of Albany’s downtown. While Brown argues that the building is just “a money pit,” and that the community will be better served if the Y is unfettered by that financial burden, he appears surprisingly ignorant of the importance of an equitable and neutral gathering place where the city’s diverse community can interact. And while observers question the effort that has been made in recent years to maintain and modernize the Washington Avenue facility, it is hard not to notice the money the CDYMCA is pouring into its new suburban facilities, which are a long distance from the diverse urban communities that the YMCA, by its own mission statement, is supposed to be serving.
As Corey Ellis, former common councilman and a member of the task force, told Metroland, “This is further segregation of our city. And that’s the problem here. This branch is in the middle of the city. It is a place where there is a mixture of young and old, people from affluent neighborhoods and not-so-affluent neighborhoods. And that mix creates a stability for our community.”
By abandoning the Washington Avenue branch, the CDYMCA has abandoned its belief in building strong families and strong communities in urban centers where it is needed most. And for his obstructionist and disingenuous role in this travesty, we have come to the unfortunate conclusion that it is time to call for David Brown’s resignation.