BriAnne Dopart from the Herald-Sun had very good coverage in this morning's paper of the Lakewood Y community meeting held last night, and she captures well the disconnect that was evident between the YMCA of the Triangle's media-savvy and sometimes slick presentation and the heartfelt concerns of community members in attendance.
Be sure to read her story if you haven't already. Instead of recapping the meeting, I'd like to depart from my typical approach and look at this issue in a slightly different way.
I came into Tuesday night's meeting with some sympathies towards both sides in this argument. On the one hand, the Lakewood area has a proud history in Durham and is fighting to maintain a diverse, strong community in the wake of the closure of community institutions (such as the decline of the Lakewood Shopping Center.)
YMCA of the Triangle, for its part, is a nonprofit but one that wants to grow and serve new members in unmet population areas -- their desire to grow in population-rich South Durham and their concerns over the capital costs to support an old, disinvested facility, one which was neglected long before the Durham and Raleigh Y's merged, were understandable. (In re South Durham, which lacks both a Y and a City-funded rec center, we've talked about that issue here at BCR before, notably in the City's amnesia over its own master plan for rec centers calling for southern and not central Durham expansion.)
I walked away from Tuesday night's meeting more than a bit disheartened at the approach of the Triangle YMCA's Raleigh-based leadership. Notable was the evening's moderator, James White, the "senior vice president of leadership development" for the Triangle Y, who managed, somehow, to force a broad, happy smile at all times in the 90-minute presentation. Including, notably, while he was in the middle of asking someone to stop talking; or letting attendees know they weren't allowed to speak; or in responding to angry comments from the assembled citizenry.
The ever-present smile even at the moments the conversation didn't call for smiling came across as disingenuous -- a metaphor for community fears about the entire 'repurposing' process, and a symbol of the distrust that residents expressed last night.
The problem for the community is, what to believe? On the one hand, Y officials emphasize that they want to "grow" youth programs and maintain 'core' adult wellness services. On the other, they discuss plans to close the pool, close the facility's top floor, and keep closed the gymnastics room and programs.
YMCA leaders frame this change within the context of wanting to sell the building to a third party and sign a long-term lease for the Y to continue using a portion of the space. But in the context of hearing messages of "grow" and "shrink" simultaneously, the natural question Lakewood is asking is, how committed is the YMCA to maintaining the current level of operations?
White (smiling as he said it) and YMCA of the Triangle CEO Doug McMillan were both firm last night that no answers would be provided last night, but that the community's questions would be taken down and responded to later. (Chuck Clifton, head of the Committee to Save the Lakewood Y, has claimed that a couple of previous such promises for response have not been met, at least in the written form that CSLY has requested.)
Interestingly, in the midst of the Lakewood Y's own capital deficit, as noted above plans are eagerly afoot to grow the local Y. McMilllan noted that the Durham task force's recommendation includes opening a "program center" somewhere in South Durham by 2010. The Y also recommends adding family/youth locker rooms to the downtown facility (a widely-cited need) and trying to secure the City's permission to close Seminary St. in order to add more parking capacity for the facility. (This paragraph edited to make it clear that no such permission has been granted, or asked for.
Is this rational and expected behavior for a non-profit in an era
when donors are looking for cost-benefit, return on investment, and
other metrics more typical of businesses? Sadly, it is, and in that it
reflects the changing realities for the non-profit sector, for better
or, often, for worse. (Note that you don't see the Y clamoring to
build centers in North or East Durham -- areas of need that probably
aren't demographically attractive in terms of adding paying members,
but areas that are cited as needing City rec centers from our municipal
Nor should it be surprising that the Lakewood Y can't maintain its current level of programs or facilities in an aging building, and that change is needed -- something Clifton and the community acknowledged last night.
But if the presentation and tone of Tuesday's meeting is any
indication, most of the conflict between the community and Y at this
point revolves not around what's being said and done, but how and in
what manner. Mike Woodard's quote in the H-S this morning -- "What
I heard tonight feels more like an exit strategy and a plan to save
face" -- certainly reflected what I heard at the meeting, too.
There's a missing element of trust and faith between the community and the Raleigh-based leadership of the Triangle's Y. And even though today's issues have their roots in decisions made long before the merger -- when some Lakewood residents complained about the decision to build a new Y downtown instead of renovating Lakewood -- the biggest challenge for McMillan and his team lies in finding ways to regain that faith.
An odd problem for a faith-based organization to find itself in, indeed.