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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

South Toledo YMCA closing underscores push to suburbs

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

At the dedication of the then-newest branch of Toledo's YMCA, the guest speaker heralded that God's presence would be observed in every room and corridor of the just-opened South Toledo facility.

Although the speaker that day in April, 1954, President J. Gordon Howard of Otterbein College, would emphasize religion's role in the Y's mission, even he may not have foreseen how literal his proclamation would become 55 years later.

The South Toledo YMCA, now one of 11 branches of the YMCA and Jewish Community Center of Greater Toledo, is set to close its doors for good Aug. 29 and hand over the keys at no charge to fast-growing CedarCreek Church.

Once the planned $1.5 million to $2 million renovation and expansion of the facility is completed by late 2010 or early 2011, songs and prayer will replace the echoes of dribbling basketballs and splashing pools within 1226 Woodsdale Park Drive.

The Y's decision to close the 55-year-old branch and donate the complex, appraised at $445,400, to the church, has been unpopular with many neighbors and club members, who mourn the loss of an anchor to their community.

Toledo YMCA officials, from left, F.R. Findley, Harold Anderson, Paul Routsong, William Kuntz, and Dr. R.C. Young, were on hand on Sept. 28, 1953, when the cornerstone was laid for the organization's south branch. The facility opened the next year. Toledo YMCA officials, from left, F.R. Findley, Harold Anderson, Paul Routsong, William Kuntz, and Dr. R.C. Young, were on hand on Sept. 28, 1953, when the cornerstone was laid for the organization's south branch. The facility opened the next year.
TOLEDO BLADE FILE PHOTO Enlarge

Y leaders insist that they're not physically or philosophically abandoning Toledo for the suburbs and note that the Morse Center YMCA on the Health Science Campus of the University of Toledo, the former Medical College of Ohio, is just 1 1/2 miles away.

"We didn't abandon this place, nor did we abandon the people," board Chairman Paul Schlatter said.

But no matter how Y officials try to spin a growing public relations problem, they are closing a beloved South Toledo institution.

YMCA/JCC executives and trustees say the recent loss of about $2 million in child-care funding from the state, compounded by years of operations deficits at the South Toledo Y, made closure necessary.

But the move underscores another long-standing trend for Toledo's Y: a push to more affluent suburbs, where newer branches continue to subsidize the costs of older, city branches with generally less affluent membership bases.

"We're not leaving the community," said Robert Alexander, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA/JCC.

"We're just leaving a building that can no longer be sustainable."

But what Mr. Alexander declares as unsustainable is considered a vital part of the community to hundreds of South Toledo residents who believe in their neighborhood and love their Y.

"The Y that exists now is a family Y. You can walk in there on Saturday afternoon for open swim and it's chaos, but it's good chaos," South Toledo resident Cooper Suter told The Blade last week.

"It's a neighborhood hub."

But to the bean counters and strategic planners at YMCA headquarters downtown, the South Toledo Y is a maintenance drain and not worth fixing up.

This is not the first time the Y has pulled up stakes in a city branch, nor is it the first challenge, financial or otherwise, to face the nonprofit Christian-focused organization that arrived in Toledo in 1865.

The Toledo YMCA in those early decades was known more for its inexpensive sleeping accommodations than as a place to work up a sweat.

Years before lap pools and gymnastics centers, the amenities were kitchens, baths, beds, and prayer rooms.

Most inner-city Ys before World War II had residence halls with dozens of rooms to rent for a day, weeks, or even months. Younger generations may be surprised to learn the YMCA was once the nation's largest hotel chain.

And YMCAs here and throughout the country also were training grounds for overseas Christian missionaries. Although the missionary work has been over for years, the Toledo Y has 51 chaplains who volunteer each week and help conduct Christian parenting classes and vacation Bible schools.

"They're not necessarily hitting anyone over the head with the Bible, they're just generally in there caring and building relations," said the Rev. Josh Heaston, Y director of Christian emphasis.

The first permanent home for Toledo's YMCA opened in 1905 in a six-story building in the 400 block of Michigan Avenue where Lucas County's Family Court Center is now situated. Membership fees topped out at 92 cents a month, and a young man away from home could get a room for $1.72 to $3.22 a week.

The Y of that era fielded its own sports teams, granted high school diplomas and even law degrees, and grew a reputation as a high-quality yet low-cost health club of less exclusivity than the members-only Toledo Club. It was reported that 500 men enrolled each year in its Bible classes and 433 in education classes.

When the organization encountered budget difficulties around 1910, Y and community leaders organized fund-raisers to "save the YMCA." The efforts succeeded, and a decade later, the financially stable YMCA started branching out of downtown.

In 1920, the Y opened locations in East Toledo and at the University of Toledo, as well as its first Railroad branch at Oak and Fassett streets for railroad men on layover. Camp Storer in Jackson, Mich., came about around the same time.

A new railroad branch opened in 1950 in the second floor of Union Station, complete with lounge, shower facilities, and sleeping rooms for 63 men. Eventually that branch closed as railroad travel's popularity lost steam.

The downtown Y moved in 1935 to even grander quarters: a new, seven-story red brick structure on Jefferson Avenue with textured brickwork and colored tile patterned after the Romanesque style of northern Italy. The building included two gyms, a five-lane pool, and 152 residence rooms in a "safe, clean, highly moral" environment.

Fund-raising proved crucial to financing construction of these early branches and those that followed.

Toledo industrialist C.O. Miniger famously bestowed $300,000 - a sum equal to several million today - for the Jefferson Avenue central Y. Two $25,000 gifts were received from Thomas DeVilbiss, who developed the spray-painting industry, and Paul Block, Sr., then-owner and publisher of The Blade, whose donation provided the central Y's pool.

Mr. Block also donated $5,000 for the Indiana Avenue branch, which opened in 1930.

A two-phase campaign raised $750,000 from the community in the early 1950s to build the South Toledo and West Toledo branches.

Dignitaries at a separate ceremony laid the cornerstone of the South Toledo branch. The 1953 cornerstone was sealed with a copy of the Bible and The Blade.

The West Toledo building opened with a swimming pool in 1954.

The South Toledo branch, however, was without a pool until a 1960s addition.

With a new emphasis on families, the Y continued to expand into further reaches of the city as that demographic moved toward the suburbs. In keeping with a program of "new directions" taken nationally by the YMCA, the Central Y stopped offering rooms in 1978.

A Blade article about that decision noted the declining occupancy and how, "even in these rather free 1970s, the living situation was kept strictly monastic, with no women allowed."

The Y's decision to close the Central and Indiana branches proved more controversial. Facing large budget deficits, the organization's board of managers opted to shutter both facilities in 1980. Although membership was on a downward trend at the central facility, it was a home branch to many devoted Y users.

The closures left downtown Toledo without a Y for the first time in the organization's history.

"If the managers had told us how serious the money situation was, we could have done something about it, but you never see any of the metro Y directors down here," Ed Adkins, an 82-year-old Y member, said at the time. He had been a member since 1910.

Wayman Palmer, a former community center, eventually replaced the Indiana Y as a near-downtown branch, but it did not have a pool.

The YMCA soon sold the central branch for $800,000 to a group of investors. The building, which now houses Lucas County's Correctional Treatment Facility, retains many of its original architectural flourishes. The pool, although emptied, is intact and behind locked doors.

Child care became an increasingly popular business for the Y by the late 1980s and has expanded under the leadership of Mr. Alexander, who arrived in 1989 from the YMCA of Great Cincinnati.

The YMCA/JCC is now the largest child-care provider in the area, with 39 day-care locations.

In 1998, the Y opened its Fort Meigs Center for Health Promotion in Perrysburg. Two years later, it established a branch just outside downtown in a former Riverside Hospital building on Summit Street near what is now the Veterans' Glass City Skyway.

In 2004, the YMCA finalized its merger with the Jewish Community Center in Sylvania Township. The following year, it opened the Francis Family YMCA in Bedford Township, Michigan.

The Y encountered fierce criticism from Mayor Carty Finkbeiner eight years ago when it announced the Bedford Township branch. The mayor said the Y should instead place the facility downtown and chided the nonprofit organization for what he described as straying from its mission of serving central-city youths to woo pricey memberships from wealthier suburbanites.

The Y never did put a new facility in downtown proper - the Summit Street site is not considered by city planners to be downtown. However, the Y did commit to a grand $8.3 million replacement of its West Toledo YMCA branch, said to have the largest membership in the Toledo system with 8,000 members.

The new facility on Tremainsville Road, near the new Start High School, is scheduled to open by September and features a large gym, an 800-seat auditorium, and a 10,000-square-foot aquatic center.

But the decision to build a grandiose replacement within the city limits for an older Y branch has shown to be more an exception than the rule in recent decades. Arguments for closing branches have nearly always centered on money.

The South Toledo YMCA, which Y executives say is losing $300,000 a year between repair work and its operations deficits, is no exception.

"We'd have to raise, I'm guessing, $1 million to [$1.4 million] in dollars to do everything we need to do to that building," said Mr. Schlatter, the board chairman.

Todd Tibbits, chief operations officer of the YMCA/JCC, said that suburban branches tend to subsidize the cost of those in central Toledo.

"The suburban branches tend to have a higher number of full-paying membership dues," Mr. Tibbits said.

Mr. Suter, the South Toledo neighborhood activist who is pushing to keep the branch open, says the way Y officials gauge viability at each branch is not fair.

He points to the hundreds of gymnasts who use the South Y's large gymnastics center each week as a good example.

"They come from across the city, but they don't count as South Y members. Many of the people who use the South Y aren't registered as members there," he said.

Membership dues represented 27 percent of the Y's $33.3 million budget last year, and more city than suburban members receive financial assistance from the organization's annual scholarship campaign.

The scholarship campaign netted $2.1 million in 2008 and assisted 75,462 people. Altogether, the YMCA/JCC says it served 307,440 people last year.

At the South Toledo branch, 1,051 people received a total of $96,012 in financial assistance in 2008 to participate in activities or programs there. The branch and its 800 members raised $68,069 for the scholarship campaign, so dollars raised at other branches had to cover the difference, Mr. Tibbits said.

The total number of South Toledo branch users was not available Friday, and Mr. Tibbits acknowledged that more than 80 percent of those who take part in the branch's popular gymnastics and swim programs reside outside the South End neighborhood.

But, he said, one-third of the branch's members do not use the facility at all.

Once the deal between the Y and CedarCreek is final, the church is to proceed with plans to transform the South Branch building into the latest satellite church to its main chapel in Perrysburg Township, a megachurch that attracts thousands each week.

Mr. Finkbeiner voiced significantly less opposition to the Y's decision to close the branch near the Anthony Wayne Trail than he did to its earlier move to expand in Bedford Township rather than Toledo.

In fact, he was uncharacteristically positive last week about the announced closing of the South Toledo Y, inviting officials of CedarCreek to his office to speak with reporters.

"I was very delighted to see a church that is as popular and growing as their church is put further ties in the community," the mayor said, even endorsing a plan to pave over part of adjacent Woodsdale Park for the church.

Asked last week about his previous and current stances, Mr. Finkbeiner said in a statement that he is disappointed that the Y is closing a location but believes the nearby Morse Center Y at the UT Health Science Campus provides good service.

That site happens to be the mayor's Y, where he reportedly works out at least six days a week.

Still, the mayor said he wishes the Y would "strengthen its central Toledo presence."

"I would prefer it remain a fitness center with a swimming pool in place," he said of the South Toledo Y. "I, however, respect the good men and women of CedarCreek Church."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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