Pottstown YMCA victory is beacon for the embattled
The Pottstown YMCA has been saved from closing.
As noted here several weeks ago, the closing of the Y in Pottstown stood out as a symbol of affluence winning out over need and community treasures abandoned to suburban sprawl.
Thus, news that programs will continue, and swimming pools, basketball courts and exercise rooms will remain open for local families is cause to celebrate in all towns where people fight to be heard.
The surprise announcement on May 22 revealed that the Y will be bought and renovated by the Gulatis, a Reading family that also stepped in several years ago to save the iconic Sunnybrook Ballroom from the wrecking ball.
Under the agreement, the building will be repaired and refurbished, and YMCA health and wellness programs for youth, families and individuals will be housed in the facility.
As the main tenant, the Y will join other community athletic and wellness services that will also be housed at the newly renovated facility.
“Every once in a while an opportunity comes around like this, where the business model will allow us to do well, but more importantly, it does good for the community.” Chuck Gulati told Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Maria Panaritis.
In the column, Panaritis described Pottstown as a place “where moxie dies hard,” crediting community spirit, entrepreneurial investment and a bit of government support for saving the Y.
The closing announcement last November started a slow burn in this aging community of 22,000, and by spring, had sparked a protest that played out from school board meetings to borough hall to the NAACP and an online petition that gathered 1,200 signatures.
Community outrage targeted the Philadelphia-based Freedom Valley YMCA which owns and manages local Ys throughout Philadelphia, Montgomery and Delaware counties. Freedom Valley CEO Shaun Elliott cited the $11 million in repairs needed in the 50-year-old building and the growing cost of maintaining the facility.
A series of columns by former Mercury editorial writer Thomas Hylton and reporting by Mercury staff writer Evan Brandt painted a different picture.
Hylton interviewed Pottstown leaders involved in the merger agreements with the Y 10 years ago. His columns published as paid advertorials in The Mercury pointed out that the local Y had money set aside for repairs at the time it merged with other Ys and became Freedom Valley, money that was never used in the local facility.
Brandt reported on the new YMCA buildings Freedom Valley has continued to build in wealthier suburbs like Haverford, Spring-Ford area, and Upper Moreland while urban settings are neglected.
The Pottstown branch of the NAACP organized community meetings, including one at which Elliott answered questions from an angry roomful of Pottstown residents. Even the Y-appointed task force of 17 community leaders tasked with smoothing the effects of the closing did a dramatic turnabout and presented a proposal to return the Y to local control.
Just 11 hours before the sale was announced, a meeting of more than 40 community activists gathered at the YWCA on King Street to discuss strategies for keeping the local YMCA open, including everything from the involvement of the Pennsylvania Attorney General to enlisting the help of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The outpouring of community support was from a place of grass-roots concerns for the families of Pottstown. It may not have forced the hand of the Freedom Valley board, but it inspired a solution.
The Gulati group, which owns Stokesay Castle and the Reading Royals hockey team, had been in talks with the Freedom Valley board since January. State Sen. Bob Mensch, R24th, and Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh were working behind the scene to pressure the Y for a solution.
But the real push — and the greater victory — came as this town stood together for a cause, empowering and speaking out for the community.
Pottstown learned how to fight for itself and demonstrate that local voices can be heard.
Whether it’s the Sunoco pipeline protestors in Middletown and East Goshen or the fair school funding suit in William Penn School District or any place where local people feel railroaded by “the system,” the Pottstown Y saga has a message.
Keep fighting; keep stepping up and speaking out. You might just inspire a solution.