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Y’s Plan of Action

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson says the Springfield Y’s move downtown is a significant cost savings, but there are other reasons why it makes sense.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield has had a long-standing policy: once someone has logged 50 years of continuous membership, their days of paying to work out are over.

Dexter Johnson, CEO of the nonprofit, told BusinessWest that there are at least a few dozen people currently taking advantage of this benefit, including one who recently crossed that threshold. “He was counting down the days until April 15, and kept reminding us,” said Johnson. “It’s a badge of honor for them.”

Some of those in this exclusive club can trace their membership back to when the YMCA was located a few blocks to the south of its current home on Chestnut Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown. And most all of them will be turning back the clock in a way and staying with the Y when it makes its move back downtown — to Tower Square — in a matter of weeks.

Johnson hasn’t officially polled these long-time members, but he has gathered some feedback on this move, one that has been accompanied by no end of questions concerning everything from where people will park to why this relocation was necessary, to where people might be able to swim a few months from now.

We’ll get to all those later. First, back to Johnson and those in the ‘membership is free’ club.

“We’re hoping that they stay with us through this transition, and most are keeping an open mind,” he said. “They understand that transition has to happen, it has to happen in life in general, and all businesses go through it some point. Our message to them has been, ‘just wait and come check it out; there’s no need to run somewhere else.’”

And this is the mindset — especially that open-minded part — that Johnson hopes all current members, prospective members, and the community at large will take as the Springfield Y, one of the oldest such institutions in the country, embarks on what will certainly be one of the most intriguing chapters in its history.

“We’re hoping that they stay with us through this transition, and most are keeping an open mind … Our message to them has been, ‘just wait and come check it out; there’s no need to run somewhere else.’”

The lease with Tower Square is for 10 years, and the ensuing decade will be spent exploring and perhaps implementing any of a number of options for securing long-term sustainability for the Y, a nonprofit that has struggled financially not only for the past several decades, but most of its existence, said Johnson, who has researched the matter thoroughly.

However, the fiscal picture became even darker in recent years, said Johnson, adding that the Y essentially reached a point where it needed to get out from under a half-century-old facility that had become an untenable money pit.

But while the move to Tower Square will ultimately save the Y roughly $150,000 a year, the relocation and sale of the property on Chestnut Street should be looked upon not merely as a cost-saving measure, but as a real opportunity for the agency.

Indeed, Johnson estimates there are at least 2,000 people working in Tower Square and the other office buildings abutting it, and within those ranks are undoubtedly people who could benefit from having a well-equipped gym just a few hundred feet from their office or cubicle. Likewise, there are parents perhaps looking for day-care services more convenient than the one they’re using.

Meanwhile, the Y will have a front-row seat for, and perhaps play an important role in, the revitalization of Springfield’s downtown.

“There’s a lot of activity happening downtown right now, and this gives us the opportunity to be part of that rejuvenation that’s going on,” he said.

These are just some of the ‘glass-more-than-half-full’ takes that Johnson has concerning the Y’s new home. For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, he offered much more on how and why this step was taken and what it means for this institution.

Positive Steps

As he talked with BusinessWest in his office at the Chestnut Street facility, Johnson said the Y recently received an appraisal ($1.3 million) on the building — or, to be more specific, the non-residential component, with the five-story living quarters having already been acquired by Home City Housing — and said the property will go on the market later this month.

When asked to speculate on possible future uses, potential buyers, and degree of retrofitting likely to be involved, he obliged.

“If it was a school that really wanted a pool and a basketball court, then there wouldn’t be as much repurposing to do,” he explained. “But if someone wanted to turn it into office or retail space, then obviously there would be significantly more repurposing.”

But at present, Johnson has his mind on many other matters beyond what will hopefully be a quick sale, especially the work to get the Y’s new digs, especially the child-care component, ready for primetime, meaning August by his calculations.

But before we go there, we need to go back and discuss the many factors that brought us to this moment. Recapping, albeit quickly, Johnson said a number of factors and circumstances in recent years — everything from escalating competition in the fitness business to the miscalculation that was the Y branch that opened in Agawam in 2014 and subsequently closed less than two years later, to the ever-rising costs of operating and maintaining the Chestnut Street facility — brought the Y to the point where something needed to be done, and soon.

He said a number of options have been considered in recent years, from new construction — pegged at $12 million to $15 million — to renovation of the existing structure, to retrofitting another building. But the numbers didn’t seem to work with any of them.

A different kind of option presented itself when the new owners of Tower Square — even before they actually owned the property — approached Johnson about the prospects of the Y moving there.

“There’s a lot of activity happening downtown right now, and this gives us the opportunity to be part of that rejuvenation that’s going on.”

And the talks quickly escalated to action.

“The opportunity at Tower Square was chosen because it did allow us to make a quicker move than any other options we explored,” he explained, adding that, as those talks continued, a plan emerged that would bring the old Y, or at least most of it, to two different locations within Tower Square. The childcare unit would be relocated to an area on the ground floor, formerly occupied by Valley Venture Mentors, a travel bureau, dry cleaners, and other businesses. Meanwhile, the wellness center would be located in a large space across from the Food Court, perhaps best known in recent years as the home to the Boys and Girls Club’s Festival of Trees.

The two sides came to an official agreement in the spring, and work has been ongoing at the childcare facilities and, more recently, the wellness center. Meanwhile, logistics have been worked out regarding parking — members can park for free in the Tower Square parking garage — and for the dropoff and pickup of children at childcare in a designated area created along Bridge Street.

The Y will be trading its current 85,000 square feet of space for less than half that (35,000 square feet), said Johnson, but a good portion of the existing footprint is unused or underutilized anyway, including the basketball court and squash courts, which in recent years have been put to other uses. And there are options available for adding more space in the future.

The move is somewhat unusual, but not without precedent, he added, noting that, as the retail scene changes and many YMCAs face fiscal challenges and upkeep expenses at aging facilities, some have found new homes in closed malls and supermarkets, and others, like Hartford’s, have found their way back downtown.

Space Exploration

But while a move to Tower Square was the most sensible option on many levels, it obviously comes with a good amount of risk, Johnson acknowledged, noting that the downtown location brings with it questions, challenges, and limitations.

Starting with the obvious lack of a pool.

Johnson said there are a number of members who make use of the pool at the Chestnut Street location — just how many he couldn’t say — but these individuals will certainly be among those who won’t be going with the Y to its new home.

“The question about the pool is the one that’s raised the most, and that’s a loss for us, no question about it — especially for the adults who use the pool for lap swimming,” he noted. “But for us, that’s not a huge number right now. The pool sees more activity from youth swim lessons and exercise classes happening in the pool, and we’re looking to continue those at other sites.”

Elaborating, he said the Y is exploring partnerships with a number of entities, including Boys and Girls Clubs, schools in Springfield, and other facilities.

As for the membership in general, Johnson said there have been a lot of questions and some anxiety about the move, both of which were expected. But he believes when the dust settles — literally and figuratively — most will stay with the Y.

“There are a lot of great members who have been here 40 and 50 years — we have some long-term members who are used to being here,” he said. “Once they’ve seen the renderings of what the new place will look like and they understand that it’s the same great staff … they’ll realize that, if everyone goes over, then the small groups that have formed and the friendships that have formed can continue.

“We’re not looking to change any of that,” he went on. “We’d just like to change the location and create something that’s more attractive to new membership.”

Overall, Johnson is expecting an attrition rate of perhaps 20% among the Springfield Y’s roughly 1,100 members, a number he admits is a calculated guess based on the feedback he’s received.

That’s a big number, but he’s optimistic when it comes to the prospects for recovering those losses with new members, especially from the ranks of those working in and around Tower Square, a number that will climb by roughly 200 with the arrival of Wellfleet in August (see related story, page 39).

Johnson acknowledged there are already a few gyms downtown — one at the Sheraton hotel in Monarch Place and another just a block down the street at 1350 Main St. — but none right in Tower Square. And none that have the far-reaching mission of the YMCA, where dollars spent on a fitness membership ultimately wind up helping fund a number of youth programs within the community.

He’s already reached out to those at the UMass campus located on the second floor of Tower Square and plans to do the same with Cambridge College, located on the ground floor. Meanwhile, the Y is planning a membership drive and grand-opening specials, to help spur interest in the new facility, as well as half-hour classes designed specifically for business people on tight schedules.

The Shape of Things to Come

In discussing the move to Tower Square, Johnson refrained from describing the new mailing address with the term ‘temporary,’ although he hinted strongly that it probably won’t be permanent.

“As we looked to our future, we saw this as a great opportunity for more immediate stability,” he told BusinessWest. “Our options are open to continue once we get this move done and stabilize ourselves a little bit. I wouldn’t call this ‘temporary,’ but I also wouldn’t say it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to explore standalone ownership somewhere else in Springfield down the road.”

In other words, the move buys the Y some precious time and, by all accounts, a much better chance than it previously had of putting itself on better financial footing for the short and long term.

Which means that, in most all respects, this was a gamble worth taking.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]m

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