The fight to stop the closure of the Sarasota YMCA's fitness centers is about much more than just having more gym options.
Like an addict rescued from an overdose by a last-minute shot of Narcan, the Sarasota YMCA’s two remaining fitness centers may yet be saved by an injection of fresh money and management being rushed into place even as the window for resuscitation narrows.
In the three weeks since CEO and president Steve Bourne announced the Sarasota Family YMCA board would close the Frank G. Berlin and Evalyn Sadlier Jones’ fitness centers on September 13, a wave of support aimed at reversing that decision is building to tsunamic proportions. But will it roll in fast enough to avert the demise?
“There’s been some incredible people step forward,” said Charlie Campbell, a longtime cycling instructor and member of the Save Our Y advisory committee, which has been working furiously behind the scenes to create a viable path for sustaining the facilities. “You wouldn’t know them when they’re wearing their gym shorts, but there’s an incredible amount of power here.”
Less than 24 hours after Monday's launch of a SaveOurY.org website — set up to accept pledges until a new 501c3 nonprofit can be established — commitments of nearly $96,000 had been received, in amounts from $5 to $5,000. Though but a fraction of the $1 million the finance committee has estimated it will take to spin off the fitness centers from the main organization and keep them operating — under the management of current staff, but with oversight by a new board — through the end of the fiscal year next June, it represented an encouraging step forward.
And while the national YMCA organization says it cannot provide any financial assistance, it is also working with the local group and amenable to a transfer of the Y’s charter to the new organization, an idea the current board would entertain, according to Bourne. The COO of YMCA national has offered to visit Sarasota to help with the transition.
More promising still, the SFYMCA board — which earlier this week allowed the deadline on a real estate offer for a portion of the Berlin property, upon which the deal may hinge, to expire without response — has invited the Save Our Y committee to present a proposed business plan Thursday afternoon.
Board members, who are presently split in their inclinations toward the real estate offer, plan to convene again privately next Tuesday to take a formal vote on the plan. Bourne has said previously that the organization is not interested in anything but a long-term solution that would keep the fitness centers open indefinitely.
“The really good news is that the board requested [the meeting] from us,” Campbell said. “Which means they’re paying attention and taking us seriously. And they’d better, because we’re not going away.”
It was also good news for the Dreamers Academy, which made the purchase offer for a 6-acre portion of the Berlin property (including all the buildings other than the fitness center) to serve as home for their new dual-language charter school, scheduled to open in the fall of 2020. Their proposal would bring the Y a badly-needed injection of cash, but leave the remaining 2.7 acres of the campus, upon which the fitness center is located, to remain operating as is. (Specific details of how the two organizations would share the campus and its facilities have not yet been determined.)
“We are exceptionally pleased that Dreamers Academy, Save Our Y and the YMCA Management Board are all working together to craft a solution to keep the YMCA fitness/community centers open,” said Dreamers Academy chair Tom Chaffee in an email statement. “This is a true community effort, backed by thousands of enthusiastic supporters, hundreds of small donors and dozens of volunteers driving tirelessly toward a shared goal. Given the fractious nature of our body politic these days, it is especially heartening to see so many people from all walks of life working together.”
Campbell and Marc Schaefer, head of the finance committee, have been poring over the Y’s books to balance expenditures and revenues and craft a business strategy for the board’s approval. They’ve also met with longtime SFYMCA CEO Carl Weinrich, who supports their effort and has been generous with his institutional knowledge.
The committee has been busy on multiple other fronts as well, trying, as its head of marketing Joy Leitner put it, “to do in two weeks what would normally be done in a year.” That includes: working with the staff at both fitness centers to retain current members and retrieve those who've defected; filing paperwork to become a 501c3; organizing a show of public support for next Monday’s City Commission meeting and planning a large and highly-visible community rally at the Berlin branch on a yet-to-be-determined date.
To say why all of this matters — and to answer those who’ve queried about why this column has “suddenly become all YMCA, all the time” — I need to remove my reporter’s hat and assume my identity as a commentator driven by values of compassion, diversity and community. Because this is about more than just an effort to save two gymnasiums; after all, as has been pointed out ad nauseum, there are plenty of other places people can walk a treadmill or hoist a barbell.
This is about an effort to save something in Sarasota’s soul that has become endangered by rampant development, economic disparity and social segregation.
The outpouring of generosity, activism and yes, even righteous anger, in the wake of the threat of losing an institution just as beloved and inclusive as our local libraries, is evidence of what Sarasota can be at its best and what must be preserved and protected as it grows ever larger and more disconnected:
A community that cares about the health and well-being of all its residents, be it a child in need of swim lessons or a senior in search of a cup of coffee and companionship.
A community willing to make sacrifices and pool its wealth of finances, experience and intellect — without ego or territorialism — to support the least fortunate and most disadvantaged among us.
A community of individuals, businesses, organizations and officials who can work together cooperatively, collaboratively and appreciatively, for the greatest good of all.
In short, a community in the truest sense of the word: a place that fosters fellowship, relationship and unity.
This is a test, Sarasota. Don’t blow it.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-361-4834. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman or on Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.