Lakewood YMCA in Durham reopens Saturday

Five years ago, the Lakewood YMCA was a goner. The 40-year-old Y, a cornerstone of this diverse southwest-central Durham community, faced $5 million in repairs, benign neglect by the YMCA of the Triangle and a declining membership that had been cannibalized by the Ys downtown and at the American Tobacco Campus.

So the YMCA of the Triangle decided the building should close, the fate of the property unknown.

But the Committee to Save the Lakewood Y, a group of concerned citizens and neighbors (they won an Indy Citizen Award that year), successfully fought for the facility’s revival. Through its own research and moxie, the committee convinced YMCA of the Triangle officials to think creatively about how to keep the Lakewood Y alive.

To the YMCA of the Triangle’s credit, they eventually were swayed, and this Saturday, Jan. 14, the Lakewood Y, at 2119 Chapel Hill Road, opens at 8 a.m.

In 2008, the YMCA of the Triangle negotiated a deal with the Durham County Board of Commissioners and Durham Public Schools. The county purchased the 7.4-acre parcel and the building for $250,000—county tax records valued the property at $4.5 million—and spent $8 million renovating it. The YMCA of the Triangle kicked in $850,000 and agreed to lease 18,000 square feet of the facility for 15 years.

Lakewood Montessori Middle School, which opened at this new location earlier this month, occupies the rest of the building.

Read previous stories about the Lakewood Y by clicking the “Lakewood YMCA” tag at the bottom of this story. Also see Endangered Durham’s “Lakewood School / Lakewood YMCA” blog post, which has an informative history of that site, including the former Lakewood School.

If you are put on hold while calling the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA, a chirpy recorded voice on the other ends advises, “Don’t try to change everything at once.” The message is targeted at those starting an exercise regimen, but it could also pertain to a controversy facing the institution itself.

Faced with the task of serving Orange and Chatham counties and increasing its fundraising, the board of directors of the CH-C YMCA is considering whether to enter into a management services agreement with the Raleigh-based YMCA of the Triangle. This month, board President Jennifer Trapani is appointing a subcommittee to examine the issue. The subcommittee will weigh several options for working with Y of the Triangle, although a management services agreement is usually the first step in an eventual merger.

But the issue is not merely one of paperwork. The CH-C Y explicitly states in its employment handbook that no one will be discriminated against because of sexual orientation. While there is no evidence that the Y of the Triangle discriminates on that basis, it does not list sexual orientation as a protected class in its employment materials.

For progressive communities such as Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which have openly gay elected officials and have long been on the forefront of LGBT rights, the Y of the Triangle’s position runs counter to their values.

“It’s not an issue that we should give on in any way,” says Lydia Lavelle, a CH-C Y member since 2004. Lavelle is in her second term on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and is one of several openly gay elected officials in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. “Orange County is recognized as a leader in gay rights. It seems to go against the policies of what our citizens support,” she says.

According to its website, the Y of the Triangle oversees more than a dozen YMCA branches in central North Carolina, including those in socially conservative towns, such as Wake Forest, and progressive cities like Durham.

Jennifer Nelson, public relations director of Y of the Triangle, did not respond to requests for comment.

Many concerned citizens, elected officials and CH-C Y members are criticizing the board for what they see as a step backward in terms of human rights. For example, last year, the CH-C Y board prohibited the Boy Scouts from using the facilities because the national Boy Scouts organization does not allow “openly or avowed homosexuals” to become leaders.

As for the 18-member CH-C Y board, its president and chair-elect say a merger, if it happens, could be years away. “We’ve taken heat for decisions we’re not close to making,” says chair-elect Dabney Grinnan. “I think there have been a lot of misunderstandings and misassumptions.”

Finances are part of the reason the CH-C Y wants to meet with the Y of the Triangle. The CH-C met its goal for its We Build People campaign, raising $191,000 for scholarships for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford Y programs. (It awarded $300,000 in scholarships.) But overall fundraising has suffered over the last two years. Grinnan acknowledged that its capital campaign to build a youth center on Martin Luther King Boulevard fell short of its $2 million benchmark.

“We’ve had a difficult time fundraising for a series of reasons,” she says. “It’s difficult to raise money in Chapel Hill because UNC is a huge heavy-hitter here. We’re competing in a fairly small town with a major fundraiser.”

Meanwhile, the Y of the Triangle, whose board includes powerful businesspeople such as developer Smedes York, has connections to big donors throughout the Triangle, Grinnan says.

According to 2010 CH-C Y tax documents, grants, gifts and contributions decreased about $500,000 over the previous year, but program service revenue increased by about $200,000. Total revenue for 2010 was down about $200,000, to $5.1 million.

Grinnan says the CH-C Y relies on memberships and programming dollars. Those programs, in a down economy, “are running at a loss to us,” she says. Fewer people are enrolling in the programs, and those that do are more likely to be unable to pay without scholarship assistance.

A merger could cost the CH-C Y financial support from town government. Chapel Hill Town Councilwoman Penny Rich said the Y has received as much as $8,000 from town coffers for its after-school program. (Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools also have helped fund the Boomerang program for at-risk kids.)

“I told them last year I had some deep concerns and I would not vote for funding if they merge,” Rich says. “I cannot support anyone who discriminatesperiod. The CH-C Y should be trying to convince the Y of the Triangle to change its policy.”

Steve Scroggs is the only member of the board who voted against forming a subcommittee to weigh a potential relationship with Y of the Triangle. “I understand why talking to the Y is important in some regard; it’s a financial situation,” says Scroggs, former assistant superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. “But you say to the Y of the Triangle, ‘Take care of your issues first.’ I feel like the Y of the Triangle has to get its situation straight. This is not a time when Chapel Hill and Carrboro should take a step backward.”

Scroggs acknowledges that part of the impetus is financial, although the CH-C Y is still profitable. “Money doesn’t trump doing what is right,” he says.

Grinnan emphasizes that Y of the Triangle “is not anti-gay,” adding that “we have no evidence that they don’t hire LGBT people or that they have fired people [because they are gay].”

The Y of the Triangle has amended its membership policy at the Lakewood Y in Durham; it plans to make the changes systemwide after a software update this spring.Instead of specifying that a family is a husband and a wife, the new categories will be generic, such as “adult with dependent.”

That does not sway Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, who wrote a letter, which was posted on Facebook, to the CH-C Y board opposing the merger. “You are poised to make a really big mistake,” he wrote.

In the next paragraph Chilton’s incendiary remark toward the Y of the Triangle made Grinnan bristle: “It seems to me that … those at Y of the Triangle who oppose having an LGBT non-discrimination policy are saying one of two things: That they believe that LGBT people are pedophiles or that it is acceptable to indulge the prejudices of people who believe that LGBT people are pedophiles.”

“I find that sort of vehemence shocking,” Grinnan says. “It’s really strident language accusing tens of thousands of people connected with a nonprofit of a really extreme view.”

Chilton, who, with Lavelle, met with Grinnan, Trapani and Jerry Whortan, CEO of the CH-C Y, on Tuesday, defends his letter. “I’m sorry if people don’t like homophobia called out in that way,” he says. “What is worse is being an accommodationist for homophobia.” However, Chilton acknowledged that the CH-C Y board “really gets this issue of gay rights, and have been leaders on it.”

Grinnan says considering the service record of the CH-C Y, she wished the town leadership would have spoken to the board before going public. “Why not give us the respect and trust?” she says.