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MONSON — In the spirit of its 150th Anniversary, Monson Savings Bank announced earlier this year that it will be launching its 150 Build-a-Bike campaign. The community bank has purchased more than $20,000 worth of bikes to donate to local children and they have partnered with various non-profits in the area to host Build-a-Bike events throughout the year. Most recently, Monson Savings delivered 10 bikes and 10 helmets to YWCA of Western Mass. 

Elizabeth Dineen, executive director of YWCA of Western Massachusetts Executive Director, and her team, welcomed Monson Savings Bank members to the YWCA campus. She expressed gratitude for the bank’s generosity and commented on the impact they are making in Western Massachusetts. 

“We are so happy Monson Savings Bank reached out to invite us to be a part of this wonderful campaign,” she said. “We are so thankful that Monson Savings is giving us bikes for our YWCA campus, allowing children using our services to enjoy some carefree time riding a bicycle. The continued support that the bank provides to Springfield and the surrounding communities is truly amazing.” 

Members of the Monson Savings team delivered the bikes that they helped to assemble with Ray Plouffe, owner of Family Bike Shop in East Longmeadow. Many members of the team expressed feelings of gratitude and a sense of fulfillment after building and delivering the bikes. 

“All of us were very excited to come together for the YWCA Build-a-Bike event. Our team had a great time getting to know the YWCA team and confirming our knowledge about all of the incredible ways they help those in need,” said Dan Moriarty, President and CEO of Monson Savings Bank. “Plus, it was wonderful to deliver the bikes and hear how the YWCA plans to make a safe, designated area for children to enjoy the bikes as they receive support from the organization.” 

Throughout the summer, Monson Savings Bank will also partner with I Found Light Against All Odds and the Springfield Housing Authority, South End Community Center, and Educare Springfield to host more 150 Build-a-Bike events, continuing to spread happiness to children and families throughout the area. 

To learn more about Monson Savings Bank’s 150th anniversary, the bank’s historical timeline, and to view a full schedule of events visit www.monsonsavings.bank/anniversary 

Health Care

More Than a Gym

Dexter Johnson says people who work downtown are excited about having the YMCA nearby.

Dexter Johnson can rattle off the amenities found in any chain gym. Weights and cardio equipment. A sauna or pool. Perhaps a playroom for kids to hang out while their parents work out.

But the YMCA offers more than just fitness equipment and childcare for its members — it gives them a community, said Johnson, CEO of YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently relocated from Chestnut Street in Springfield to Tower Square in the heart of downtown.

The nonprofit recently held its grand opening, and is well underway with programs, fitness classes, and more activities open to members.

The fact that Tower Square, Monarch Place, 1550 Main Street, and other surrounding offices are home to more than 2,000 employees in downtown Springfield is one of several benefits of the YMCA’s move, Johnson told BusinessWest. “The reception has been great. The people that work in this building or in the adjoining buildings have been excited about having us here.”

And it’s no secret why.

The new Child Care Center for the Springfield Y boasts a 15,000-square-foot education center, including classrooms, serving infants through elementary-school students. The Wellness Center continues its popular fitness and health programming with a new, 12,000-square-foot facility on the mezzanine level of Tower Square, complete with a group exercise room, state-of-the-art spin room, sauna, steam room, and walking track.

But Johnson knows the Y is more than just a gym — it’s a cause-driven organization that focuses on giving back to the community through youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

“We don’t call ourselves a gym, despite the fact that we have gym equipment,” he said. “We are a community organization, and this is just one of the ways that we serve the community.”

The Bigger Picture

One of the many programs the Y offers is LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a 12-week personal-training program for adult cancer survivors offered without cost to participants. It also provides families with nearly $700,000 in financial scholarships every year — just two examples of how the Y is much more than just a gym, Johnson said.

“Our goal as an organization is to really make the Y stronger,” he noted, adding that the move to a new facility will greatly reduce costs to allow the organization to expand its services and impact. “The Y is looking to serve the community and to help from the spirit, mind, and body aspects of what people need.”

Before the move, Johnson anticipated the Y would lose about 20% of its members due to lack of a pool and change of location, but added that it has since gained new members and partners that are taking advantage of the services. About 50 new memberships were sold before the move into the new space, just because people knew it was coming.

“Nearly 2,000 people work in these three buildings, so we’re really hoping that those folks will understand the convenience of having something like this right here and not having to go to your car and drive elsewhere to meet your wellness needs,” he said.

Right now, the number of membership units, both families and individuals, is up to about 1,000. In order to increase these numbers, Johnson says the Y is giving tours, reaching out to local businesses and neighbors, and will be offering specials starting in 2020 to get people in the door.

“We’re hoping that we will get a good turnout of people that will give us a try,” he said, adding that a new sauna, steam room, and more than 40 group exercise classes a week are just some of the benefits.

While welcoming those newcomers, Johnson emphasized that the Y is also hoping its long-time members will enjoy the new facility as well.

“Despite the fact that we are heavily focused on the business population, we continue to serve the population as a whole, and we want our members to remember that part because that’s crucial for us,” he said. “We’re really looking to build upon the existing membership by moving here.”

A New Venture

While the new location has more limited space than the original, Johnson says he’s focused on making the most of the new location. That includes utilizing the parking garage by offering members free parking for up to three hours — as well as letting people know what other amenities exist in Tower Square, from retail and banking to UMass Amherst and numerous restaurants, most of them in the food court.

“We understand that the more activity and the more action taking place in this building, the better for everyone,” he said.

Overall, Johnson strongly believes this new facility will help serve the goals of the Y as a whole.

“We think this facility will stabilize the organization,” he said, “while we continue in our other efforts as they relate to our full service at our Wilbraham location, our childcare facilities throughout the city, and all the things the Y is involved with.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management

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

Opinion

Editorial

The rumors started circulating last fall: The YMCA of Greater Springfield was moving many of its operations into Tower Square in the heart of downtown Springfield.

Soon, the rumors moved to a different plane, a strange one, a place between rumor and fact, where the move was assumed, a proverbial worst-kept secret, but not yet official. And then, it moved to a still-higher level as buildout work began at Tower Square, in earnest, a few weeks ago.

Now the move is official (it was announced late last week), and thus the speculation about what all this means — for the Y, Tower Square, downtown, and the city itself — also escalates to a higher plane.

Suffice it to say this is an intriguing move, one taken out of what amounts to necessity for the Y, which has been facing a number of challenges ranging from declining membership in its fitness center in Springfield to the rising cost of operating and maintaining its nearly half-century-old property on Chestnut Street.

Something needed to happen to give the Y some financial flexibility, some additional visibility, and a chance to grow its programs. Meanwhile, something also needed to happen for the new ownership of Tower Square, which was looking to not only put some vacant space back to revenue-generating use, but also give the facility a spark in terms of everything from foot traffic to much-needed momentum.

It took a while, but the parties came together and came to a deal, one that could substantially alter the fortunes of both entities.

But there are many questions about this move and whether it is going to work for either the Y or Tower Square.

“Something needed to happen to give the Y some financial flexibility, some additional visibility, and a chance to grow its programs. Meanwhile, something also needed to happen for the new ownership of Tower Square …”

Let’s start with the Y. There are already two other health clubs in the heart of downtown and another on the riverfront just a few blocks away. Meanwhile, the Y’s Chestnut Street facility is only a half-mile from Tower Square. So there are naturally questions about whether this move will generate a boost in membership.

Likewise, there are questions, and many of them, about whether Tower Square is the ideal location for Y’s daycare facilities, which are, at this moment in time, its strongest revenue-producing operation. At times, it isn’t easy to get into and out of downtown, and parking will certainly be an issue.

As for Tower Square, the need to fill the large amounts of unused or underutilized space is acute. But are daycare operations and a fitness facility the best use of that space?

Yet, amid all the questions and uncertainty, one thing is clear: this is a bold move for both entities, one that shows large doses of imagination and outside-the-box thinking. And this is what’s needed at both the Y and Tower Square at this time.

Flash back four decades or so, and both were thriving. The Y’s building had recently opened, its membership was large and growing, and the day when there would be gym — or two or three or eight — in every community was still a few decades off. As for Tower Square, it was crammed with thriving retail — clothing stores, record stores, a sporting-goods store, a bookstore, Friendly’s, and much more.

That was then. It seems like a long time ago, because it is. This is now. There is no turning back the clock for either organization, but the clock can be turned forward.

No one really knows if all this is going to work out, but what is known is that neither entity could stand still and simply hope for better days. This move constitutes risk for both parties, a roll of the dice, if you will. But it’s a risk worth taking to secure a better future for both.

Features

Focused on Fiscal Fitness

Last fall, while Dexter Johnson was making up his mind to take the job being offered him — president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — a few friends and relatives had a simple five-word question for him: ‘Are you sure about this?”

He was — and is.

But he acknowledged then and now that those asking the question had every right to do so.

That’s because this YMCA, though steeped in history and tradition (it is the fourth oldest Y in the world, after all), like a number of other Ys across the country, has been struggling financially as it adjusts to a host of changes impacting the traditional Y business model, if you will.

These struggles are nothing new — they’ve been going on … well, for as long as most can remember. And a path to more-solid footing seems as elusive as ever.

But Johnson, who has been working for this YMCA for several years now and within the organization for more than two decades — and is therefore known as a ‘Y guy’ — decided that this was a challenge to embrace, not run away from.

And he’s never had any second thoughts.

But Johnson understands that the Springfield Y’s path to fiscal fitness will be challenging and, undoubtedly, lengthy. In short, some progress has been made, but there is still considerable work to do.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now, “ he noted, adding that the organization has refinanced debt, tapped into its endowment, and taken other steps to cope with the red ink. “And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

The Springfield Y, like many others, has generally struggled in recent years due to a variety of factors, including changing demographics in urban centers and a proliferation of competition — there is seemingly a gym or two on every corner now.

But the difficult times have been exacerbated by some missteps, especially the opening of a branch in a strip mall in the center of Agawam. Attempting to duplicate the success of the Y’s Scantic Valley operation on Boston Road in Wilbraham, and armed with some data that said the venture could work (although there were some numbers that indicated otherwise) the center was opened in 2015.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now. And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

But the ‘Y’ sign would come down only 18 months or so later, as the expected memberships never materialized.

“Looking back, that was just a mistake in judgment,” Johnson said. “After a year and a half of trying and making those efforts, we were losing significantly there to serve a really small population, so we decided to take the loss, which was painful, and move on.”

Moving forward, the Y will seek to avoid such mistakes and be more calculated in its attempts to be both entrepreneurial and fiscally prudent, said Johnson.

The key, he told BusinessWest, is to firmly identify the role this Y can play and must play in the years and decades to come. Not all YMCAs play the same role, he went on, especially given the demographic and societal changes taking place.

At the Springfield Y, for example, 60% of all revenues come from child care, with the health and wellness components contributing only 30%.

All this is explained, sort of, in new wording on the front of Johnson’s business card and in other marketing material used by the organization. Specifically, there are three new lines under the huge ‘Y’:

• For Youth Development

• For Healthy Living

• For Social Responsibility

Individual YMCAs can focus on one, two, or all three, he went on, but mostly, they have to mold themselves into what the region being served requires and what will ultimately work fiscally.

“The Y becomes what that community needs,” said Johnson. “If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Johnson about this process of becoming what the community needs while also putting the Y on more solid financial footing.

Sign of the Times

On the day he spoke with BusinessWest, work crews were busy taking the old ‘Y’ logo off the side of the YMCA building on Chestnut St., a move undertaken in accordance with a national initiative to rebrand the institution and bring more consistency to the letter ‘Y’ used by individual YMCAs. A new sign will be going up “soon,” said Johnson.

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield to grapple with the question of what to do with the aging facility on Chestnut Street.

“They give us color options, but there is a change in the logo,” he explained, noting that the new ‘Y’ (as in the letter on the letterhead) is more rounded in its look. “All the Ys throughout the country had kind of gone out on their own and come up with all kinds of different logos, and back in 2010 the national office said ‘enough’s enough, and we need to get back to being nationally identifiable.’”

There was more than a little symbolism attached to the exercise of taking the old ‘Y’ off the building. For starters, the Springfield Y missed the seven-year deadline to rebrand set by the national organization by a wide margin, an obvious symptom of its fiscal struggles. There’s also the poetic juxtaposition of giving the letter ‘Y’ a new look, while the staff and board and of the Springfield institution have been attempting to reinvigorate the local YMCA brand on a much broader scale.

And then, there’s the physical act of taking the letter off that building. Indeed, there are a number of questions about just how much longer the more-than-half-century-old structure will continue to serve in that capacity, and in what shape and form (much more on all that later).

Like we said, quite a bit of symbolism, and sorting it all out goes a long way toward explaining the challenges Johnson faces, but also the determination and passion he brings to his work.

And with that, we need to trace the steps that brought him to Springfield and his current assignment.

Our story starts in Tampa, Fla. That’s where Johnson attended a satellite campus of Springfield College, renowned for producing future YMCA leaders, and where he began amassing experience in virtually every facet of a YMCA operation, a diverse resume he believes is serving him well at this critical stage of his career. It’s also where he worked with Kirk Smith (he actually was Smith’s supervisor), who would eventually become director of the Springfield Y and convince Johnson to join him there.

“The Y becomes what that community needs. If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

“I was going to school to be a teacher and just went to the Y to work with some kids and get some experience, and 26 years later, I’m still here,” he said, noting that he started as director of the Child Care Services/Outreach program at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA. He would later go on to direct the Youth Opportunity Movement program there and then become executive director.

After then serving as a district executive in Tampa and as a regional training manager at YMCA of the USA in Chicago, he joined Smith in Springfield as senior vice president and chief operating officer.

“I was ready to get back into the operational side of the Y and decided Springfield was the move,” he told BusinessWest.

When Smith left for another opportunity in Florida, Johnson was named interim president and CEO, but the permanent job eventually went to Scott Berg, then associate vice president of Development at Springfield College and a key player in the opening of the Scantic Valley YMCA.

When Berg left less than two years later to become vice president of Philanthropy at Baystate Health, Johnson was quickly named his successor.

He takes over a Y that, as noted, is steeped in tradition (it dates back to 1852). But recent history has been marked by fiscal struggles and hard work to adapt to a changing landscape. And as Johnson addresses the many challenges facing him and the team he’s assembled, he plans to call on the many forms of experience he amassed.

“I definitely learned some valuable lessons during that time when I was interim president,” he noted. “But now that I’m in the permanent job, I’m definitely calling on all resources. During my time with Y USA I had the chance to make some great connections, and I have a number of CEOs and other leaders at Ys to give me counsel and help me through some of the challenges we have here.

“Nothing’s new when it comes to problems — they’ve all happened somewhere at some time before,” he went on. “So we’ll try to gain some advantage by learning from those experiences.”

Building Momentum

And an advantage will be helpful, because righting the fiscal ship has been an ongoing challenge, not just for this Y, but for facilities across the country, especially urban Ys; one in Pittsburgh recently filed for bankruptcy, said Johnson.

Specifically, the age-old challenge is generating revenues to meet and hopefully exceed expenses. In Springfield, the problem has been exacerbated by the downtown branch, an aging building that is expensive to maintain, and a facility that has seen its health and wellness membership numbers fall 40% over the past decade.

Creating the Scantic Valley Y has helped the Y cope with the rising costs and falling revenues downtown, and the Agawam facility was conceived with similar ambitions; however it need did not match expectations.

Moving forward, the Y has to implement a long-term strategic plan for its downtown branch, and the operation as a whole, with the goal of making it become what the community needs.

Such a plan was drafted during Berg’s tenure, Johnson said, and, not surprisingly, its main focus was the downtown location — meaning both the building and the various programs housed there — and on devising actions plans for both.

As for the property itself, the Y sold the 40,000-square-foot residential component of it (the tower that faces Chestnut Street) to Home City Development, and still owns what’s left in what amounts to a condominium-like arrangement. But that portion it still owns is large, old, in many cases under-utilized, and in all cases expensive to operate and maintain.

Talk of a ‘new Y’ has been ongoing for years, said Johnson, noting that several of his predecessors have grappled with the issue and its myriad complexities, especially the cost of a new building.

Rumors have persisted, and one very preliminary proposal — to move to a closed car dealership site on Boston Road — made its way into the newspapers. “There’s still people that ask me … what happened to the Boston Road thing?” said Johnson.

Nothing happened with it, and nothing has really happened with any of the other rumored options, he went on, adding quickly, however, that the issue is real and a solution must eventually be found — and inevitably much closer to downtown than Boston Road.

At present — and on an ongoing basis — a variety of options are being looked at, he told BusinessWest, including leasing space instead of owning it (the new owners of Tower Square have reached out, for example), extensively renovating the existing quarters, or eventually moving into much smaller, more efficient quarters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,” he said. “We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

Building a new Y building is the long-term strategy, he said, adding that such a step would require significant fund-raising efforts and other steps. Shorter term, renting space might become an option, he went on, adding that there are pros and cons to any new location, temporary or permanent.

As for growing the Y, in terms of everything from its revenues to its presence within the community to its overall relevance, Johnson said the key, as it has always been, lies in partnerships with other groups and agencies across the city and the region.

“I’m looking to be a partner and be a part of any partnership that fits our mission, and that effectively serves this community,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve had some great partnerships with the Springfield Public Schools, the United Way, the Martin Luther King Family Center, and right now, we’re doing a multi-agency youth basketball league that is going gangbusters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,.We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

“To me, no agency can do it all,” he went on. “It has to be a collaborative effort, and I want to make sure that our Y is established as a strong community partner, whether that’s leading a collaboration or being a functional part of the collaboration.”

The Bottom Line

Not long after taking over as president and CEO on a permanent basis, Johnson reached out to Steve Clay, who filled that same role two decades ago.

And faced pretty much the same fiscal challenges two decades ago.

Indeed, Johnson’s talk with Clay helped put some things in perspective and provide him still more resolve to become the leader to put this venerable institution on something approaching solid financial footing.

As noted, some might have asked him if he was sure about this career, but deep down, there was no question in his mind.

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

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