Bright future for the ‘Y’

Published 11:01 am Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rarely in the course of community service is one faced with a decision of monumental importance and permanent consequences.

The board of the James L. Camp Jr. YMCA stood at just such a crossroads recently and, from this biased perspective, chose the route to a long, prosperous, secure future for one of this community’s quality-of-life jewels. On July 1, Franklin’s “Y” will give up its independent status and become part of a much larger family, the regional YMCA of South Hampton Roads.

I don’t know of a single board member who took the decision lightly. This one certainly didn’t. Current and former board members and officers who’ve been studying the issue for the better part of two years surely felt the gravity of the decision even more than I, a relative newcomer to the board.

Folks like Bobby Tyler, Carter Hotchkiss, Elliott Whitfield, Suzy Davis, Terry Godwin, Lynn Powell, Hugh Raulston, Randy Drake and Brian Hedgepeth devoted countless hours to the merger question, analyzing every angle, weighing every pro and con, and crunching every number.

Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to consummate the merger, which we see as the Camp YMCA’s best shot at long-range success.

It is not without risks. It is not a decision that affords a “do over” in a few months or a few years if we don’t like the result.

Next month, the Camp YMCA will cease to exist as an independent entity and will become a branch of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads, which has 21 other facilities throughout Hampton Roads, the Outer Banks and the Eastern Shore.

The Camp “Y” will exist at the will and pleasure of the parent organization and could be shut down at any time, though our board is convinced that won’t happen due to the YMCA of South Hampton Roads’ demonstrated commitment to other communities it serves.

Still, autonomy is a hard thing to give up. The Camp YMCA’s board will become largely an advisory board with few decision-making powers. Our “Y” will, with an exception or two, play entirely by the parent group’s rules. Our employees will become employees of the YMCA of South Hampton Roads.

Why, you might ask. Because the path of continued independence was even riskier. In an era of shrinking resources, our rural community’s capacity to sustain an independent YMCA — especially at the high level of programming, facilities and equipment to which our members have become accustomed — was questionable.

The YMCA of South Hampton Roads, as a large, regional organization, offers economies of scale that simply are unattainable for a small “Y” like ours. Fitness equipment is one example. An organization that is equipping 21 facilities with the latest and fanciest treadmills and weight machines is going to buy them at a much better price than a single facility buying 10 or 12 at a time. Keeping the Camp YMCA equipped with modern fitness machines had become a challenge.

Likewise, specialized instruction and programming, which had been cost-prohibitive, will become more readily available through our network affiliation.

The merger will result in a more modern, better equipped facility than would ever have been possible as a stand-alone “Y.”

The only potential deal-killer for this board member and others was resolved quite satisfactorily with the creation of the Robert Camp Ray Foundation to assume control of $1.2 million in endowment and capital-reserve funds. We owed it to the foundations and other donors who have contributed so generously to our “Y” to ensure that their money fulfilled its original purpose. As long as a “Y” exists in Franklin, the money will be spent on its improvement.

It’s no secret that I have deep concerns about the possible uses of that money should the Franklin “Y” cease to exist 50, 75 or 100 years from now, long after the current generation of leadership is gone. I would have preferred airtight rules — akin to those governing one of this community’s most important and successful entities, Franklin-Southampton Charities — that would keep the money in this community regardless of the Camp YMCA’s fate. Alas, my colleagues preferred more flexibility. The majority opinion prevailed, just as it should, and my viewpoint lost.

The good news is that the debate is likely moot. I believe more than ever that the decision to merge with a strong, proven organization like the YMCA of South Hampton Roads cemented the Camp YMCA’s future as a contributor to an outstanding quality of life for many generations of Franklin and Southampton County citizens to come.