Phoenix Rising

For close to a hundred years, the building stood on the corner of the Post Road and Milbank Avenue; its Greek Revival façade, fluted pillars and graceful central rotunda a testament to time-honored democratic ideals of human dignity and healthy recreation for all. By 2010 the Greenwich chapter of the YMCA had become something else: a sputtering embarrassment.

Over $20 million in debt, losing $70,000 to $80,000 a month and shedding members in droves, the chapter was mired in an expensive, protracted renovation project that left its exterior enveloped in scaffolding and makeshift stairs. A lawsuit exposed its long-term failure to provide handicapped access. The old gymnasium had been closed for years; they even stopped offering day camp. As COO of the Rye, New York, YMCA, Ed Philipp remembers Bloomberg running a story in early 2011 about the YMCA of Greenwich’s steep decline. “Whoa, I’m glad I’m not working there!” he remembers thinking.

Fast-forward to the present. The YMCA of Greenwich is out of debt, scaffolding is off, membership is on the upswing, and programming is as robust as ever. Philipp, its executive director since 2012, says the best is yet to come. How did the YMCA of Greenwich pull it off?

Sandy Waters, chair of the Greenwich YMCA Board of Directors since mid-2014, said it began when board members faced a tough question: Does Greenwich need a YMCA? Their answer was yes. “We have public schools, we have private schools,” she says. “We have rich people, we have housing projects. We have everything in this community, and the Y exists to pull them together.”

There was a time when the YMCA was known for just that. Built with the backing of Rebecca Thorne Witherell, rich widow of local real-estate developer and smelting tycoon Nathaniel Witherell, the Greenwich YMCA opened in November 1916 with the expressed aim of giving people of all ages and classes a place to be physically and mentally active. For quite a while, local public recreation more or less existed under Greenwich YMCA auspices. A youth baseball league, a retired men’s association, and swimming expeditions to an island on Long Island Sound acquired by the Greenwich YMCA, Calf Island, were among YMCA-established activities. The sport of racquetball was invented by Greenwich YMCA member Joe Sobek.

Then time began to pass it by. The building was never upgraded. Its Victorian interior of plaster and dark mahogany seemed hardly conducive to family recreation. Its decades-old pool and gym went from gems to curios. “For years and years we looked at this building and thought: Who’s using that building?” Sandy remembers thinking in the 1990s. “Membership became skewed. It wasn’t a family-oriented place. It was largely male-oriented, not female-oriented.”

Sandy is a local philanthropist and former chair of the Greenwich Board of Education. Her family had a strong interest in swimming, so when the Greenwich YMCA approached her to help support a full-scale renovation of its facility that included an Olympic-sized pool, she agreed.

The renovation soon became an Olympic-sized headache. The town zoning board mandated expensive underground parking. Asbestos was found and had to be removed. Projected at $20 million, renovation costs soon ballooned to $38 million. Selling Calf Island to fund the project netted only half of what was expected.

By the time construction began in 2006, the YMCA of Greenwich had taken out a $20 million loan to fund the work. It wasn’t expected to be a problem. “The economy was great,” recalls Jim Cabrera, then a board director who would become chair in 2010. “This is Greenwich, after all.”

A bubble-bursting nationwide economic collapse cut into expected donations and creditor patience alike. That $20 million loan, and the interest it accrued, became the biggest threat to the YMCA of Greenwich’s existence.

Cabrera, a real-estate developer, had grown up in town and sometimes swam and played racquetball at the YMCA. He watched with growing dread as the crisis grew and fellow directors began to bail out. Membership, once over 10,000, dropped from 6,000 to 4,750. Funding dried up, too; construction work stopped as the contractors were no longer being paid.

The YMCA had their new Olympic-sized pool, but little else. Most of the property, including the original, smaller pool and gymnasium, remained shuttered by the interrupted renovation. Even the new pool was a problem. Specially-designed elevators had been planned to allow access to the physically challenged, but those elevators were slated for a later phase of the renovation now in limbo. Luis Gonzalez-Bunster, a wheelchair-bound Greenwich resident, was an active athlete who wanted to use the pool for physical training. He sued for access in 2008.

Nationally, it was a bad time for YMCAs across America. The number of individual chapters fell from 972 in 2008 to 880 in 2014. Cabrera agrees it easily could have been 879. What prevented foreclosure? Much of the credit, Cabrera says, belongs to the original benefactor, Rebecca Witherell. When she handed the YMCA of Greenwich the deed to the building, it came with a “reverter clause,” indicating if the function of the building ever ceased to be YMCA-related, the property would revert to her descendants.

“The bank thought initially we’ll foreclose on the Y, take the asset, and put it on the market,” Cabrera says. “We introduced them to the reverter clause and some other things, like the first selectman and others in town who wouldn’t be happy if this was anything other than a YMCA. Then the bank was interested in a workout.”

While a reverter clause was a handy means of avoiding foreclosure, other tools were needed to get the Greenwich YMCA back on its feet. Staff was cut back significantly, and the board was reorganized to make it stronger and more active. A break even budget was realized for 2011-12. But how to pay off the debt itself? Sandy helped. Using her many connections in town, she generated a fresh round of philanthropy for the YMCA among neighbors and friends. One donor she found was willing to give the YMCA of Greenwich $6 million, under the condition it got its fiscal house in order.

“This particular individual was advised by her financial advisor to give away $12 million, and she considered six charities,” Sandy says. All Sandy will say about the woman’s identity is that she has a family connection to the YMCA of Greenwich, and that she made any gift conditional to the chapter getting its act together by the end of 2013. And so it did, by raising funds to resume construction and then using the funds raised from new user fees to pay down debts. It was only late in the afternoon on December 31, 2013, that the anonymous donor wired the funds to cancel the debt and restore the YMCA of Greenwich to solvency. Sandy credits “major tough love” with getting the chapter through
its crisis.

One of the most important steps, Sandy and Jim agree, was hiring Ed Philipp in August 2012. A hearty, strapping man with close-cropped hair and an eager smile, Philipp can often be found patrolling the lobbies and corridors below his third-floor office, chatting up members. In conversation, he radiates the energy of a true believer in the YMCA and its mission, which he encapsulates as “not just a gym, but a cause.”

“The Y’s cause is strengthening the foundations of community,” says Philipp. “So often we get pigeonholed as ‘gym-and-swim.’ Sure, we built a huge pool, but we are so much more than that.” Since reopening its gymnasium and the rest of its facility in early 2014, the Greenwich YMCA has pulled in new members at a steady clip. Philipp puts present enrollment at 5,471, higher than it has been in years though well below capacity. “The Y has always known what we were,” he says. “We just had a tough time articulating it.”

Summer camp is back up, doubling enrollment each of the last two summers. A child-care program run by the Greenwich YMCA next to St. Roch’s Church in Byram was revitalized with the help of town block grants. New programming is being organized around adult members. Betsy Culeman runs the adult aquatics program, comprising dozens of classes using both the Olympic-sized pool and the smaller original pool now back in operation. “I teach everything from pre-natal exercise to seniors,” says Betsy, a teacher since 1991. “This place is bustling.”

The facility is now fully compliant with Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. There is still some exterior renovation work needed on the original rotunda façade, and the current endowment, Sandy notes, is pitifully small. But with Philipp providing what she calls “stability,” Sandy says she and the rest of the board have big plans for the YMCA of Greenwich’s future. “A hundred years ago, a terrific lady started this, and ninety-eight years after that, a terrific lady saved the place,” Cabrera says.

 

 

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