The Lakewood YMCA is like an aging athlete. With a leaky roof and an ailing electrical system, the 41-year-old building is as deteriorated as an arthritic knee; with $400,000 in annual losses, its finances as shaky as a bad back. Yet supporters say the branch in southwest-central Durham—which regional Y officials are considering shuttering—still has a strong heart. Members and neighbors will take the next three months to propose ideas, including a possible "green Y," to lengthen its lifespan.
But Lakewood's physical and economic issues are only part of the story. It is a beloved social institution credited with stabilizing a diverse, inner-city neighborhood—an idea supporters feel is lost on the Raleigh-based YMCA of the Triangle, which governs Ys in Durham and four other counties.
And not only is Lakewood threatened by competition from two nearby YMCAs—both developed with the knowledge they could carve into its service area—but the branch also is succumbing to national trends that are pushing YMCAs farther into suburbia.
"I fear the Triangle management doesn't understand," says Chuck Clifton, president of the Long Meadow Neighborhood Association, which is near Lakewood. "This is a neighborhood and community problem and it needs a neighborhood and community response. Lyons Park Center was closed for 10 years and we see what happens when buildings are boarded up. It's a blight issue."
While some YMCA officials contend there simply isn't enough interest or money in Lakewood to sustain it, at least in its present condition, members and neighbors complain that until now, they've been excluded from discussions about its future. Membership is flat or slightly declining, yet supporters say there has been no concerted effort to recruit new users or to tap into the community for advice.
"If they had financial problems all this time, why didn't they come to the members until the last minute?" asks Sherwood Wilson, who, in his 41 years as a member, has recruited more than 30 people to join the branch.
"It's a uniquely welcoming place," says 20-year member Joe Marion. "It lacks barriers between backgrounds, races and ethnicities. In Durham, of all places, it's something we should value."
Bryan Huffman, executive director of the Durham branches, explains that Lakewood hasn't generated the financial reserves it needs to maintain the 53,000-square-foot building, which is now so far gone that it would cost an estimated $5.3 million to renovate, and slightly less to tear down and rebuild a smaller facility.
It's common for YMCA branches to close, says Brad McDermott, spokesman for the YMCA of the USA, and for reasons similar to those besetting Lakewood. "Often a building has aged to the point where maintenance is too great financially, or the dynamics of a community have changed. This is awfully close to have two YMCAs."
Lakewood's proximity to the downtown branch—less than three miles—was an issue 10 years ago, when its fate may have been sealed. Then, the Durham board, against the advice of national YMCA, built the downtown branch on city-donated land on Morgan Street. In retrospect, YMCA officials admit it was the wrong move.
"What's done is done," Durham Advisory Board member Bobby Salmon said at a recent members-only meeting. "We can't change the past."
Downtown's subsequent financial difficulties are legendary: It couldn't pay on its $9 million bond debt, it depleted its reserve funds, officials overestimated its potential membership, and at one crucial point, it couldn't afford federal payroll taxes on its employees. Yet, there was no talk—publicly anyway—of closing that branch.
When YMCA of the Triangle merged with Durham, it refinanced and absorbed much of the debt. Based on its membership enrollments, downtown remains $138,000 in the red; however, if actual usage is considered, it is turning a $125,000 profit.
Despite the national YMCA's reservations about the proximity of the two Durham branches, a third later opened at the American Tobacco Campus, a half-mile from the downtown facility and even closer to Lakewood. American Tobacco, a small facility in a rented space, isn't profitable, but YMCA officials expect it to be in less than five years.
Although these decisions have impacted Lakewood, the branch is still supposed to at least break even. Lakewood has consistently lost money, and has been bankrolled by profits from the popular Camp Kanata and general YMCA of the Triangle funds.
"It isn't fair for us to ask Johnson County, for example, to pay for members in Durham," Huffman says. "There is an expectation to pay our way and contribute to the expansion."
However, Lakewood doesn't need to be a cash cow to survive, YMCA of the Triangle President Smedes York says. If Lakewood can "fit into the overall Y program"—meaning it can sustain programming and services not available elsewhere—its chances for survival improve. "It doesn't have to make money on its own, but ultimately you hope that it will," he says.
Dubious planning decisions, programming cutbacks and unused space at Lakewood have aroused suspicions among Lakewood supporters that YMCA officials have given up on their branch.
A Durham Y membership is good at all three Ys—Lakewood, downtown and American Tobacco—but it counts at the branch where a member originally enrolls. By that count, Lakewood has 1,000 members, but only about half go there. By comparison, downtown has more than 2,600 members; American Tobacco, 450.
"It's the facility," acknowledges Huffman. "After touring Lakewood, they go to American Tobacco or downtown."
Huffman confirms that programs such as senior citizen classes have moved to other branches, but at members' requests. Elderly people couldn't use the stairs at Lakewood—which is not handicapped accessible—and other classes were canceled due to low enrollment. A sports director position was eliminated because the programs weren't growing.
Clifton criticizes the YMCA's marketing efforts. There is no demographic or geographical research to target potential members through direct mail, for example.
Huffman says the YMCA doesn't market for any particular branch; nor does it have money for much high-level marketing. "Word-of-mouth is how we generally market."
Other attempts at raising revenue have stalled. Although Kestrel Heights School once leased the large upstairs space, it is now vacant. At a recent meeting, Camelot Academy expressed interest in renting the gym, and Huffman says he's received other inquiries about leasing space. But until he knows whether Lakewood will continue, Huffman says he can't sign contracts. And even if the organization could cover its annual shortfall through rentals, it still couldn't pay for renovations or reconstruction.
Longtime member Carole Stern says Durham YMCA officials have adopted a defeatist attitude, a stark counterpoint to the excitement surrounding the 92,000-square-foot Central YMCA rebuilt on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh.
"They identified barriers to succeeding and they had a depressed perspective," says Stern. "If Raleigh is building a very fine new Y, there's leadership and energy to do that. We look for the same leadership here."
The confluence of events—Raleigh rebuilding the aging Central Y and Durham considering closing Lakewood—has increased tensions about the YMCA of the Triangle's role in local affairs.
"I know they don't understand Durham," says Jim Stewart, a member of the Durham Advisory and Y of the Triangle boards.
York disagrees. "We need to be very sensitive as neighbors and partners. The key is being equal partners. Raleigh is not trying to be dominant."
A YMCA-commissioned study showed that Raleigh could raise enough money and new memberships to justify rebuilding the Central branch; that study, and a subsequent survey, suggested that support didn't exist for Lakewood.
Bill Malloy, who served as president of the Durham YMCA before the merger, is considering asking the national YMCA for an independent audit. "That would be the best thing right now. Whatever the findings, I think the community could live with that."
If Lakewood closes, downtown would need significant upgrades to accommodate additional membership. It has no racquetball courts or outdoor fields, locker rooms are cramped and the steam room is small.
Youth programs, which are headquartered at Lakewood, would continue elsewhere. Nearly three-fourths of them are currently held off-site, including swimming lessons for children of members of the Hope Valley Country Club. (Huffman says those kids aren't shuttled to Lakewood for swimming because the pool is being used by summer camps. Several country club members are also Y members, Huffman says, and money from those private lessons is funneled to Lakewood because it is a youth program.)
At a May members meeting, YMCA officials mentioned they might open a new facility in southern suburban Durham, an area of rapid growth. It would likely be in a rented space, unless the Y received a land donation.
However, a new facility in southern Durham may not be a death knell of Lakewood if the branch can rebound, says York. "The basic feeling on the board is even if there were a new facility built, Lakewood could stay open."
The first step to saving Lakewood could come as early as June 14, when the Durham Advisory Board will likely recommend delaying a decision about its fate.
The YMCA of the Triangle Board will determine whether to grant the delay, and ultimately, Lakewood's future, but it generally follows the Durham board's recommendations.
"In my mind, it would be mostly up to the Durham leadership," York says. "I don't see any rush at all."
Meanwhile, Huffman is researching a suggestion from two members to build a green YMCA, which, while initially slightly more expensive to build, would be cheaper in the long run to sustain. There may be federal and state grants for construction, and the cachet of a green YMCA could aid in fundraising.
If Lakewood can't be saved, it is uncertain what would become of the property. "I don't know if we'd dispose of the land," says Durham Advisory Board Chairman Bobby Salmon, who although enrolling at Lakewood many years ago, now works out downtown. "Or maybe someone else wants to own the facility and lease the space back from them."
A school is one possibility for the site, a better option for residents who say they don't want a large apartment building or other project that could damage the neighborhood. They would likely fight any rezoning they viewed as incompatible.
"The Lakewood Y has been an extremely vital asset for the community in general and the Lakewood community specifically," says Malloy. "Our neighborhood is fragile, and the wrong kind of situation placed in there could put it over the top."