Pottstown YMCA vic­tory is bea­con for the embattled

The Southern Berks News - - OPINION -

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.

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