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Partnership with YMCA reflects future for Parks Department

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

If the city can ink an agreement with the YMCA, North Austin residents will get a bigger, better recreation center than originally planned in 2006, when voters approved issuing bonds for the project.


That’s the way city staff members are looking at the potential partnership, which the City Council signed off on June 10, when it authorized staff to negotiate a 20-year deal with the YMCA of Austin. The framework of the agreement requires the Young Men’s Christian Association, as it is formally known, to build, staff and operate the center. The city would pitch in up to $8.6 million for the project and the land — that’s already been purchased, also with 2006 bond money — on which to build the center.


The partnership has drawn criticism from a highly active neighborhood group, but Sara Hensley, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, told In Fact Daily this week Austin residents can expect to see more of this kind of collaboration. If the city is going to meet the varying needs of communities, then it must pool its resources with those of other organizations.


“This is the wave of the future for us,” Hensley said. “We can’t afford to think that we can be the only ones offering services. We may not be the ones the most knowledgeable to do what the community needs.”


The partnership would save the city $20 million over two decades, she said. A final agreement is expected to go to the City Council for a vote at the end of July.


The city currently operates 20 recreation centers that provide various services and programs. For instance, the Austin Recreation Center, the city’s oldest such facility, offers traditional amenities such as a gymnasium, weight room and arts and crafts rooms, as well as classes for adults, such as yoga and Jazzercise.


The North Austin center, which would be at 1000 W. Rundberg Lane, would offer these types of amenities but would also include an indoor pool, which no other recreation center in the city has. It would have to be a minimum of 30,000 square feet. The city originally planned for an 18,000- to 20,000-square foot facility, with no indoor pool, Hensley said.


Other key elements of the agreement shared with the City Council last week stipulate that certain parts of the building be open, free of cost, to the public. Other parts would be reserved for YMCA fee-paying members only. Hensley said the YMCA has a sliding scale for membership fees and has assured city staff members that nobody would be denied a membership because of their inability to pay.


Sean Doles, spokesman for the YMCA of Austin, said the organization has this type of partnership with cities throughout the country. The North Austin center will allow the organization to expand on its mission to serve the greatest number of people possible, especially those from low-income communities.


After talking with our colleagues at the Parks & Recreation Department, we realized that we could serve far more people, far more efficiently, by combining our respective strengths,” Doles told In Fact Daily via e-mail. “This collaboration will create a larger facility with more amenities.”


The YMCA operates eight branches in Travis and Hays counties and serves about 80,000 children and adults from varying income levels.


The North Austin Civic Association, or NACA, pushed to get a new center in that part of town. The city included $8.9 million for the project, under Proposition 3, in the November 2006 bond package which totaled $567.4 million for capital improvement projects and programs.


According to e-mails and posts on a discussion forum on NACA’s former Web site, group members opposed the proposed partnership when they learned about it last summer.


“The city can not pawn off their responsibility to the YMCA,” one member wrote on the forum. “We were made promises and those should be kept….Further, the YMCA is a religious organization fundamentally. We are a diverse community, religiously and ethnically, and we deserve a secular place to gather as a group.”


Eleanor Langsdorf, NACA president, said in an e-mail to In Fact Daily on Thursday that the group’s members voted against the partnership, though by a slim margin.


At this point there are still people opposed but convinced that this will happen because the city and PARD (Parks and Recreation Department) say there is not enough money to run the building once it is built,” Langsdorf wrote. “There is a feeling held by some residents that the city and PARD can find money for projects it wants to fund, especially downtown, but ignores most of the city north of 45th Street.”


Hensley said the city has tried to work with the neighborhood association to address its concerns, including hosting a field trip to Forth Worth in April 2009 to show members a joint city-YMCA venture there. She said most residents have come around in the past year.


“There is no incentive for us in the Parks and Recreation Department to do this other than (for) the public benefit,” Hensley said. “This has been much more of a headache for us than to say, ‘No, we’re going to operate it.’”

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