YMCA struggles in dual mission

Local organization tries to balance community work, attracting members

November 28, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Chiquia Hicks and David Perko both belong to the YMCA - but they are very different customers.

Hicks lives next door to the Druid Hill branch in one of 12 apartments the YMCA operates for formerly homeless women and children. She can do laps at the pool there for free while her toddler plays nearby. Perko pays for his regular basketball games at the Towson branch, showing up so often that he was named October's member of the month.

As the YMCA of Central Maryland turns 150 next month, it's trying to hold on to both kinds of patron. Hoping to open the first new YMCA building in Baltimore in nearly a century, the organization is a provider of subsidized after-school programs, child care and athletic programs to urban families. Those programs make up a third of its budget.

But to bring about that mission, the YMCA must continue to attract paying members such as Perko to its fitness programs. And to do that, officials say, it must raise enough money to complete the new city YMCA and give suburban branches an ambitious face-lift, a tough task in an uneasy economic climate.

"The perception is that we're a gym-and-swim adult fitness organization, and we're so different," said Lee Jensen, president and chief executive officer of the Central Maryland YMCA, which serves Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, along with Baltimore.

The identity crisis extends nationwide to the 2,400-branch YMCA of the USA, which has begun a marketing campaign featuring famous patrons. Central Maryland has its own version, with local luminaries such as Geraldine Young, the widow of Baltimore Colts great Claude "Buddy" Young, extolling its virtues on buses and billboards.

But the Central Maryland organization lags behind other large YMCAs in attracting customers who pay full price to subsidize those who can't.

About 22 cents of every dollar the local group brings in comes from membership fees, compared with 34 cents for the national YMCA. After growing for six years, regional YMCA membership fell 8 percent from 1999 to 2003, and fewer than a quarter of the 125,000 people who used its programs over the past year were members.

Other sources of fund raising, grants and fees have made up the difference until now. But with state money withering and United Way funding cut by half over the past few years, officials say they can't count on that formula in the future.

"In the Y, you balance your membership organization so you can do your mission work," Jensen said. "We got out of balance. We're overly weighted on child care, after-school and Head Start, and not enough attention was paid to our facilities."

When it opens in September on the former site of Memorial Stadium in Waverly, the expansion's signature project, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg YMCA, will have a double gymnasium, a 3,000-square-foot pool and a day-care center for 92 children. The $12.2 million facility should generate more than 10,000 new memberships after two years, Jensen said.

YMCA officials are trying to attract customers for the new building by offering "lifetime charter memberships" to those who join before the YMCA opens. The names of those who do will be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Over the next few years, the organization hopes to build YMCAs in Harford and Howard counties, and to remodel its 54-year-old Towson branch. After that, it plans improvements to branches in White Marsh, Catonsville, Pasadena, Westminster and Druid Hill.

A $28 million capital campaign to pay for the first set of projects has raised $8.7 million. Fund raising for the second round of projects, which will cost $30 million, has not begun in earnest.

For some suburban YMCA members, changes won't come soon enough.

The 37-year-old Howard County YMCA branch in Ellicott City lacks a gymnasium, and its after-school tutoring is held in a trailer. Board chairman Chris Young, a Columbia attorney, said the YMCA hopes to build a facility twice as large as its 30,000-square-foot quarters. "It would certainly be nicer if we had more room and we could serve more kids and we didn't have a trailer," Young said.

The $10 million project, for which $1.5 million has been raised, has been held up by zoning issues.

Perko, 43 and a member since 1986, doesn't mind the no-frills atmosphere at the Towson YMCA. A county public-works employee, he has been nicknamed "Orange Shirt Dave" for the old county T-shirts he uses for basketball.

But Perko wouldn't mind an indoor track at his favorite club and says he is considering a switch to the Downtown Athletic Club so that he can run more comfortably inside. The steeper membership fees have dissuaded him, as has a desire to keep the friends he has made at the Y. "I try to be loyal," he said. "It's a good social atmosphere."

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