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.