Tough Sell 

The YMCA finally woke up to fiscal reality. Too bad the city's still sleeping.

Glenn Haley, the most hated man in Cleveland. - CHRIS  MAAG
  • Chris Maag
  • Glenn Haley, the most hated man in Cleveland.
Tracey Kirksey still remembers the Y that never was. Sitting in her office, she runs her fingers over the colorful architect's drawings, imagining the building brought to life -- parents jogging on new treadmills, children doing homework in bright, clean rooms. The YMCA of Greater Cleveland was promising a new, $12 million building to replace the crumbling wreck that had served the Glenville neighborhood since 1957. Kirksey, executive director of the Glenville Development Corporation, spent 18 months preparing for it, deciding on the floor plan -- even choosing the carpet.

"It was beautiful," says Kirksey.

The dream shattered in stages. In December 2002, the Y said it couldn't afford a new building. Instead, it suggested a $4 million renovation of the existing one. Then the Y hired Glenn Haley as its new director. To his dismay, he found an organization that had run million-dollar deficits for 10 of the last 12 years, that was on track to lose $2.4 million in 2003 -- an organization with no endowment, no savings, no money at all. "I said to the board, 'Guys, you can't even maintain what you got, let alone do something new,'" Haley says.

So he made Glenville a new offer. Either someone in the neighborhood takes ownership of the building, or the Y will padlock the doors, possibly within the month.

The YMCA's clumsy handling of its dire financial situation has frustrated and angered people all across the city. "Glenn talks out of both sides of his mouth," says City Council member Joe Cimperman. "He is a paid assassin. He was sent here to assassinate community hopes and dreams."

But there's one problem with this city-wide vilification of Glenn Haley: He's right. The Cleveland YMCA must close some of its city branches to survive. "Everybody's asking for the impossible," says Haley, who was sent by the YMCA's national headquarters to study the Cleveland Y as a consultant before the local organization hired him full-time in April. "They want to keep everything as it was, as if it's magically going to change. We can't."

For much of the 20th century, all big-city Y's operated on a simple business model: The organization built branches, and each neighborhood was responsible for the financial health of its own Y. But beginning in the 1970s, Y's in other cities realized that the old model wasn't working. Inner-city branches, once supported by successful local businesses and a thriving middle class, found themselves surrounded by poor people and vacant buildings. So most big-city Y's started building new branches in the suburbs, then used the extra cash they generated to support programs in the cities.

"These days, inner-city Y's really suffer on their own, without strong support from the suburbs," says Thom Peters, a senior consultant for the YMCA's national headquarters in Chicago. For example, the Milwaukee Y built its suburban branches in the 1980s. Then, between 1993 and 2002, the organization built seven new inner-city branches. "The reason Milwaukee is doing well in the city is they have very strong suburban Y's," says Peters.

The YMCA of Detroit closed six inner-city branches over the last 30 years. Many of the remaining members moved to a re-vamped downtown Y. Freed from the cost of operating six old buildings, the Y was able to expand health, job-training, and child-care programs in the central city. "All of the Y's have been doing that around the country for about the last 20 to 25 years," says Dan Maier, executive vice president of the Detroit YMCA.

All of the Y's except Cleveland's. Until this month, the Cleveland YMCA had as many city branches as it did in 1950: seven. Before the new Geauga Y opened in February, the YMCA hadn't opened a new branch for 30 years. So the system went broke. By the early 1990s, the board had blown its entire savings just to keep the lights on. Now the YMCA is $14 million behind on maintenance projects. Buildings have deteriorated, and the weight rooms at the Lakewood and Ohio City branches reek as though large and sweaty animals have died in there. Membership and revenues have plummeted.

"They're in a financial crisis of their own doing," Cimperman says. "They've been completely irresponsible with their resources and with the public's resources for the last 25 years."

On that, Cimperman and Haley can agree. It's how Haley intends to correct those mistakes that has political and community leaders calling for his head.

For the Y to grow, first it must shrink. The only long-term source of new money is to build branches in the suburbs. But Haley can't build suburban branches when he's broke. So the only way to build suburban branches is to get rid of his deficit. And the only way to cut the deficit is to close old city branches that are losing money. "You'd better hope our new Geauga branch is as successful as all outdoors," Haley says. "Because it will help us get through this. And we'd better get another suburban branch. And another one. The more healthy suburban Y's we have, the more financially stable we'll be as an organization."

In the Glenville and Union-Miles neighborhoods, Haley is trying to find a community group willing to buy the Y's buildings. If those talks fail, the Y may shut both branches and look for other places to run sports and after-school programs.

But it's in Ohio City that Haley's plan smacked into the brick wall of Cleveland politics. Haley hopes to sell the West Side Y to a developer and use the money to repay some of the YMCA's debt. The 100-year-old building, in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood, is valued at $1.3 million.

But the Ohio City Y has friends in high places. A group of Cleveland power players, including City Council member Patrick Sweeney and Children and Family Services Director James McCafferty, have played basketball there every Thursday night for the last 13 years. Development guru Chris Warren, a 33-year West Side Y member, met his wife there. Jeff Ramsey, executive director of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Corporation, has been a member for five years, and his mother worked there as a secretary in the 1950s.

So when Haley announced plans to close the Ohio City Y September 1, the branch's members -- and their well-placed friends -- screamed bloody murder. "What do they think we're going to do? Say, 'Okay, Mr. Haley, do what you want?'" Cimperman says. "Bullshit! We have supported this Y for 100 years."

It didn't help that Haley and YMCA Board Chairman Jim Petras treated critics like morons and buffoons. At a community meeting in June, Haley rolled his eyes whenever anyone suggested keeping the Ohio City Y open. And he openly mocked Ramsey, who is widely considered one of the smartest development minds in the city. "There has never been a better example of naïveté and arrogance in the nonprofit world in the city of Cleveland," says Ken Silliman, the lawyer and former assistant to Mayor Michael White who organizes the weekly basketball games.

Haley and Petras also broke repeated promises to work with neighborhood groups. "Glenn Haley said in June he would work with us, and he said it again on WCPN radio in July," Ramsey says. "Then in The Plain Dealer, in the middle of August, he said he wasn't interested in meeting with us. He lied through his teeth."

Haley says that the Y has no time for another round of exhaustive meetings. His organization is broke right now. He can't even agree to Mayor Jane Campbell's request to keep the West Side Y open just through the year. "We can't afford it," Haley says.

But in Cleveland, politics trump logic. No new condominiums or apartments have been built in Cleveland in the last decade without massive tax breaks and zoning changes from the city. But Cimperman and Campbell are so angry at Haley for closing the Ohio City Y, they're threatening to withhold such help from any developer who dares to buy and re-develop the building. "The City of Cleveland is not going to lift a finger to help," says Joe Mazzola, director of the Ohio City Near West Development Corporation.

Which could stick Cleveland with an abandoned building in the heart of the city's only growing neighborhood. "If Glenn Haley thinks he's going to close one of our community assets without a fight, he's crazy," Cimperman says.

Haley's not crazy. He's desperate.

"I feel so sorry for Glenn Haley, the poor thing," Tracey Kirksey says. "He gets so beat up. But he is being absolutely realistic. It's not what anyone wants to hear, but it's the reality."

More by Chris Maag


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