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Why oh Y?

Depending on whom you talk to, the Capital District YMCA has either (a) announced that its flagship Washington Avenue facility is in serious financial trouble but can be saved from a spring closure by an outpouring of community support, or (b) already decided to shut it down and is trying to do damage control with an insincere 11th-hour plea for help that it knows it will fall short of receiving.

J. David Brown, president and CEO of Capital District YMCA, which operates nearly a dozen facilities around the region and oversees various camps and after-school and outreach programs, met with several Albany neighborhood- association leaders Friday to brief them on the branch’s status and inform them that its closure may be announced in January and completed by April. Beyond that, meeting attendees say, the agenda gets hazy: Did Brown really leave a door open for the Washington Avenue facility’s potential rescue, or did he mask the finality of the Y’s plans with doublespeak?

Brown told Metroland that roughly 1,800 new members could save the downtown Y (current membership is about 2,800, down from a peak of about 8,500), and we’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, several realities undermine the credibility of his statements. For one thing, while the Capital District YMCA has been pouring money into its newer suburban properties, it has not made sufficient investments in maintenance at the Washington Avenue branch to stem the membership decline, nor has it done much in recent years to market the facility to potential new members. Also, by Brown’s own admission, the Capital District YMCA has been exploring alternate uses for the building—insiders suggest it has actively marketed it to potential buyers. Most damning is the timing of the Y’s sudden disclosure: Brown wants 1,800 new members, or at least the promise of 1,800 new members, in little more than a month. That is not enough time, and he knows it.

We have not seen a detailed accounting of the Y’s finances, and we understand that, especially in this economy, what is desirable is not always economically possible (just ask David Paterson). But saving this branch should be a top priority for the organization, its members and supporters, and the city of Albany, for several reasons.

For one thing, there is still a core membership that makes good use of the facility’s gyms, courts, pool, fitness equipment and other programs; for some, it is also a social experience. And many of them would have nowhere to go if this Y closes: the elderly, downtown residents without cars, and also those to whom it doesn’t make sense to trek miles out into the suburbs to work out. The Y’s much-touted commitment to serving inner-city youth would be undermined by the closure of its largest and most central facility. Unlike the suburban Ys, the Washington Avenue branch in nestled amid neighborhoods in a densely populated downtown; for many residents and downtown workers, it is within walking distance or, at most, a short drive. Because it is so convenient to so many, the facility was bustling with members not that many years ago, when the large pool was relatively new (and the much-missed smaller pool was still open!) and there were regular equipment upgrades and maintenance.

There is another important reason to keep the Washington Avenue Y open, which speaks to larger issues of city planning and suburban sprawl, and underscores the need for Mayor Jerry Jennings and the Albany Common Council to get involved. Urbanist movements have been gaining steam in recent years as more and more people have begun to understand how the postwar era’s rapid suburbanization led to disinvestment and decay in downtowns. Many city leaders around the country have since begun to reverse that trend, and the spike in gas prices a couple of years ago underscored the upside of city living and walkable neighborhoods. Yet here in the Capital Region, services in the cities seem constantly under threat: Several urban neighborhoods have lost their supermarkets over the last two decades, and the United States Post Office is threatening to close two Albany branches in walkable neighborhoods. Cities cannot flourish when their core services are eroding.

That is why Jennings should take the lead in demanding that the survival of Albany’s downtown YMCA be a top priority (as opposed to the tepid statement his office released in response to Friday’s announcement). With the proper investment and marketing, it can be saved, but it will take leadership, and it appears that leadership is not forthcoming from the YMCA itself. Branch members and other community leaders are ready to step up to the plate, but their efforts need to be backed up by the power and influence of city government.

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