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YMCA growing through contracts
Organization connects with area counties to expand operations despite economic downturn
Pam Cox of Flowery Branch cycles Thursday at the YMCA's J.A. Walters Family Branch off Ga. 365 in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The Georgia Mountains YMCA has found a way to expand its operations even as fundraising has suffered in the economic downturn.

The nonprofit organization is operating White County's parks and recreation centers as YMCAs and is working on a similar agreement with Lumpkin County - two counties that are part of the Georgia Mountains YMCA's eight-county region, including Hall.

"We had intentions and plans for YMCAs in each of the counties," said Mike Brown, president and CEO. "In this economy, we are in no position to raise the kind of capital that builds YMCAs as we did this one."

The Georgia Mountains YMCA's J.A. Walters Family Branch is based at 2455 Howard Road, off Ga. 365, in a building that cost $10 million and has a current debt of $6 million.

"We're in an economy that's failing. Membership has declined because of people's job losses. The Y has stuck it out with about 38 percent of our members," Brown said. "We have provided very low-cost memberships while they seek employment."

Also, donors have backed off pledges.

"I tell people all the time that this branch ... is the one that's having the most issues, not because of operations or ... the success stories we can tell you throughout this building, but because we're in an economy where can't raise the money," Brown said.

"We have counties that are saying they want a Y now. They don't want to wait five years from now, when the economy is better and you have to go out and raise money," he said.

"We have no capital debt in any of those counties and we can truly run programs. It's really a great model. Taxpayers are paying less and the YMCA is coming in and generating substantially greater numbers."

White County was the first to
approach the YMCA about taking over its parks and recreation operations.

"It's worked extremely well," said Carol Jackson, White County manager. "Not only have they saved us a lot of money in the past year - and certainly we need all the money we can save in these economic times - but they've also expanded programs. They've had record numbers of kids sign up for (sporting activities).

"... It's that public-private partnership that we hear so much about, and this is one of those instances where it's been outstanding. There have been very few bumps in the road, and the ones we've run upon, we've been able to settle."

White County spent between $1.2 million and $1.3 million in the last year it operated parks and recreation, "with less services and less participation," Jackson said.

The county contracted with the YMCA to run the centers for $750,000, with the county still owning all the property.

In addition, the YMCA hired county employees to run the operations.

"Some wanted to (leave the county) or transfer to other departments," Jackson said.

The Lumpkin County Parks and Recreation Department held public hearings last week on a similar move in its county.

"We expect that in the next 30 days that we will be taking over Lumpkin County (parks and recreation)," Brown said. "... Online and vocally from people in Lumpkin, we're hearing great support."

Steve Proper, Lumpkin's parks and recreation director, couldn't be reached for comment.

The YMCA hopes eventually to put branches in Oakwood/West Hall and South Hall.

"But somebody has got to come to the table and say, ‘We want a YMCA in South Hall, so here's the land,'" Brown said.

The organization has an agreement with Oakwood to operate the city pool off Railroad Street, including offering aquatics classes and other events there in the summer.

But "what's keeping us busy now is other counties have seen what's happening in White County," said Rich Gallagher, Georgia Mountains vice president who is based in White County and working on the Lumpkin expansion.

The YMCA is looking next at taking over parks and recreations operations in Dawson or Fannin counties, Brown said.