The YMCA Faces a Challenge
If you are driving through Greenwich on Putnam Avenue, you probably can’t help gawking at the odd steel framework transforming the site of our familiar YMCA or the strange wooden stairs plastered on this historic landmark building’s right corner. It is all part of the exciting renovation and renewal of an institution that has been a centerpiece of community activities in Greenwich for nearly a century. (And, in case you wondered, the stairs are required as an emergency exit only during reconstruction.)
The emerging structure that dominates the site will house an Olympic-size swimming pool, but what we see on the outside is a dim reflection of what is going on inside. It is nothing less than a complete reconfiguration, expansion and long-overdue renovation of this aged building. The project, which will cost an estimated $46.5 million when the new gym is included, is the fruition of the dreams of more than two generations of YMCA members. Efforts have been made over the years to raise the money needed to re-create the physical plant in order to accommodate the growing membership and provide needed facilities for today’s diverse recreational activities.
The history of the YMCA testifies to the crying need. Built in 1916, the building was the gift of Mrs. Nathaniel Witherell and at the time was considered one of the most beautiful YMCAs in the country. In 1996, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was originally designed to serve 600 young men, many of whom in those days made it and other YMCAs around the country their temporary home away from home. Membership now stands at 6,300, 40 percent of whom are women, the organization’s name to the contrary, and a full 3,000 are age eighteen and under. Seniors account for just 8 percent. Virtually all the membership growth has occurred in the past ten years under the leadership of John Eikrem, the Y’s current president and CEO.
When Eikrem took over, the YMCA was burdened with a number of essentially homeless residents, many of whom had drug and alcohol problems. They were not only an economic liability but they also imparted a scruffy image to the Y and made a poor mix with young regular members. To his credit, Eikrem was able to arrange alternate housing for them over a five-year period without creating undue hardship, thus repossessing much-needed space for member activities. Membership growth is a direct result of a number of programs introduced by Eikrem, and their popularity with both the young and their families has earned the YMCA the right to call itself the Greenwich Family Y. According to Ted Hodge, a former board member, the Y had gone through four directors in six years prior to Eikrem’s arrival, and there were no programs for kids. Membership had dropped 50 percent, and half the management positions turned over each year. Annual giving campaign goals were not being met. “In short,” says Hodge, “the Y was on the brink of bankruptcy in every respect.”
Today annual giving is averaging $250,000, a tenfold increase over pre-Eikrem years, and membership dues and program fees provide a healthy cash flow offsetting much of the operating expense. Nine hundred people of all ages use the facilities every day, and children, many with scholarship assistance from the Y, participate in various sports clinics and family programs, including swimming, gymnastics, basketball, baseball and tennis. And it may come as news to some that the Y is the largest children’s day-care provider in Greenwich. It currently operates in St. Roch’s Church in Byram, and the renovation will provide room in the new facilities to bring the daycare facility to central Greenwich.
Certainly the most dramatic feature of the new Y, and perhaps the most controversial, is the regulation fifty-meter pool that will be the only one of its size in Fairfield County. With a width of twenty-five yards, it will be wider than the entire length of the present pool, which will be retained as a warm-water pool for beginning swimmers and physical therapy. According to Eikrem, more and more meets are held based on the fifty-meter lap length, and as one of the few such pools available within many miles, it will draw new members to the Y.
If the old pool was inadequate, the present gym at three-quarters regulation size is equally so. To accommodate present demand, the Y has been leasing space elsewhere for basketball and floor hockey. Still, it must turn away a dozen children each session. Unfortunately, it is at this point that costs have outrun cash donations and pledges from its fundraising efforts to date. The new gym, estimated to cost $8.2 million or more, has been put on hold until enough new donations are in hand to ensure its completion.
There is no doubt that the program to rebuild the YMCA and to incorporate an Olympic-size pool was an ambitious one. Too ambitious, say some, pointing to the shortfall in funds to complete the whole project. In defense of Eikrem and his board, however, there were some unusual and unanticipated factors beyond the control of the YMCA that pushed costs from the original estimate of $26 million five years ago to nearly double that amount today. First were delays as a result of lawsuits by neighbors that were finally settled in the Y’s favor. There was also a distracting legal wrangle with a small group over the sale of Calf Island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission that took three years (the Y prevailed). Over 2,000 permits from the building department and state and federal agencies had to be applied for. Finally, major delays resulted from an all too familiar struggle with Planning & Zoning over its insistence on changes in the plans. Foremost among these was the requirement that a parking garage for 210 cars be constructed under the swimming pool. This added $3.2 million to the original cost estimate, which translates to an astonishing $15,000 per parking space. P&Z also required that the pool and gym be in two buildings instead of incorporated in one as originally planned. Delays in construction added another estimated $4.2 million, as prices of materials skyrocketed during this period.
Yet without a grand plan and an inspiring vision, we doubt that enough money could have been initially raised to undertake such a massive project. Still, in order to complete it with the new gym, another $13.5 million is needed. So where do we go from here?
The YMCA is an essential Greenwich institution that has been a central hub of activity for Greenwich families and individuals for many years. We have no choice but to move forward. We need to raise the money for the new gym if the Greenwich Y is to survive. It is an amount within reach in our affluent community, and an opportunity for those with the wherewithal to make an important and lasting contribution to Greenwich now and for the future. Looking back, we will either say, “We had a chance to save the Y but didn’t,” or we will proudly say, “We stepped up when called upon and helped save this wonderful institution.”
Contributions to the new YMCA may be made payable to the Greenwich Family YMCA, c/o Katherine Davies, 50 Putnam Avenue, Greenwich, CT 06830.