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Published: Thursday, 8/27/2009

South Toledo Y officials open door to talk with neighbors

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A rally of more than 200 people broke into applause last night outside their endangered South Toledo YMCA with the announcement that Y leaders have postponed their planned kickoff of an unpopular membership-drive challenge and now appear open to a dialogue with the community.

"They're going to get together with all of us and come up with something we all agree to," said Cooper Suter, a leader of the recently formed Coalition of Concerned Citizens and YMCA members, who announced the news at the start of the rally. "I think that's our way forward."

That development, which the Y says emerged from a meeting yesterday afternoon among board members of the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo, was celebrated as a breakthrough by leaders of yesterday's rally, who wish to keep open the South Toledo branch on Woodsdale Park Drive.

It is also the Y's second major concession to critics of the building's planned closure, originally slated for Aug. 29 but since granted a three-month reprieve.

YMCA President Robert Alexander announced the 90-day reprieve last week with a challenge:

If the Y sells 500 reduced-price, branch-only memberships to south-end residents by Nov. 30, the building stays open for at least three more years.

If too few are sold, he said, the Y would revert to its plan to shutter the branch and give the property without charge to CedarCreek Church.

Coalition members, including Ohio Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) and state Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), criticized the membership challenge as impractical and designed to fail.

Keeping the South Toledo Y open through a "practical and sustainable" membership drive was a core goal of yesterday's rally, which drew more than 200 people.

Rally leaders also called on the Y to demonstrate better communication with the community and financial disclosure.

Crowd members formed a horseshoe around the event's speakers, who included Ms. Fedor; Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop; Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez; Rob Ludeman, a former Toledo city councilman and now a council candidate, and Steve Zuber, president of the board of Washington Local Schools, who expressed his support for the neighborhood's effort.

Mr. Konop proposed the formation of a community YMCA task force that would evaluate the nonprofit organization's operations and finances.

He said that such a body could be modeled on the task force that saw the Toledo Zoo through a tumultuous period four years ago.

The firing of a chief veterinarian sparked a controversy that ended in the retirement and resignation of its two top executives, Executive Director Bill Dennler and Chief Operating Officer Bob Harden.

"They were under similar pressures as the YMCA," Mr. Konop said of the zoo.

The task force "got full openness. They got to look at the travel expenses and the salaries and all that, and they came out with a very detailed report," he said.

"Perhaps we can model some of the reform effort on the institution right down the street," said the county commissioner, who is running for mayor of Toledo.

Those in the crowd yesterday included Bev Zmuda, 48, a mother of four who lives on Sherwood Avenue.

She said she canceled her family's YMCA membership several years ago after it became apparent to her that the Y, in her opinion, was deliberately allowing the South Toledo branch to become crowded and was withholding renovations.

"Finally I said, 'I quit until you guys decide to put some money in the place,'•" said Mrs. Zmuda, who is eager to rejoin if the Y commits to building a new facility in South Toledo.

Although the Y has postponed the membership drive's kickoff, it is still offering the special South Toledo-branch-only memberships, said Mark Brunsman, vice president of association services at the Y.

The reduced-rate memberships - $40 a month for an individual or $50 a month for a family, with no initiation fee - were proposed to generate about $300,000 a year and reverse the South Toledo Y's long-standing budget deficit.

Members of the coalition to save the branch criticized the deal for applying only to those living in the 43609 and 43614 ZIP codes.

Additionally, the building as of this month is without its popular swim team and gymnastics programs, which Mr. Alexander ordered moved to suburban facilities.

"The coalition wants to support a practical, sustainable plan brought about through open discussion between the YMCA's leaders and the community," Mr. Suter said at the rally.

Absent from the rally was confrontation between coalition members and YMCA employees. Friday, Mr. Alexander led a contingent of about 40 employees to disrupt a save-the-Y news conference and heckle Senator Fedor.

Mr. Alexander did not attend yesterday's event, and few Y employees were in the audience. Mr. Brunsman stood among the crowd members and later confirmed that today's planned kickoff ceremony for the Y membership drive is not happening.

"It was postponed to try and maybe have some more dialogue with the community group, our board, and some of the South Y board members," Mr. Brunsman, accompanied by Josh Heaston, the Y's Christian emphasis director, told The Blade. "We were just here to observe and listen and hear what the community members have to say."

Mr. Suter said that, as of last night, the coalition had yet to schedule a time to meet with Y leaders.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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