Debt-free and full speed ahead, Greenwich YMCA touts its comeback

Trumpeting the YMCA’s rise from near bankruptcy, James Cabrera, chairman of the board of directors, at left, and Ed Philipp, the facility’s president and chief executive officer, pose by the newly restored and fully functional historic pool, which was built in 1916 as one of the first indoor pools in Connecticut. —John Ferris Robben

Trumpeting the YMCA’s rise from near bankruptcy, James Cabrera, chairman of the board of directors, at left, and Ed Philipp, the facility’s president and chief executive officer, pose by the newly restored and fully functional historic pool, which was built in 1916 as one of the first indoor pools in Connecticut.            —John Ferris Robben


It’s a new day at the YMCA of Greenwich, with a fully open facility and no more debt hanging over its head.

That was the clear message given to the Post during a recent tour of the facility by Ed Philipp, president and chief executive officer of the YMCA, and James Cabrera, chairman of the board of directors. There’s no more construction or controversy. Instead, it’s all about the comeback story of the YMCA and all it can again offer the people of Greenwich.

“I grew up coming here,” Mr. Cabrera said. “This was where I went when I was a kid. I know the significance of this place and its value to the community. We know the community wants to support the YMCA.”

“Membership is growing and programming is growing,” Mr. Philipp added. “We have a commitment to our members. We’re not doing this just to stay in business. We want to provide exceptional service.”

While the Olympic-sized pool has been a draw for the facility for years, the rest of the YMCA has been hamstrung by disrepair and delays. But now that is in the past, and everything from new cardio equipment to a fully restored historic pool were eagerly shown off to make sure the community gets the message that the Y is back.

The addition of the Olympic-sized pool was supposed to be the first half of a two-part renovation project after decades of disrepair at the YMCA. But while the construction of the pool was completed, the renovation of the interior of the Y languished as money was not available to actually finish the construction. This forced the facility into a position where it was losing about $1.7 million in operating costs. A symbol of futility, seen daily, was the large wooden staircase that was outside the building because of the construction. But in 2010, Mr. Cabrera came aboard and began steering the ship right.

“The execution of the plan was a little rough and it cost a lot more than we thought it would, but at the end of the day we are in a position to meet the needs of the community with a modern facility that still holds all the charm of the YMCA that people, including myself, grew up with,” Mr. Cabrera said.

While the future is bright, Mr. Cabrera revealed to the Post just how close the town came to losing the facility. In addition to losing the $1.7 million, there was nearly $20 million in debt that also had to be dealt with as well as unpaid bills to the contractor, which added almost $4 million to the red the YMCA was drowning in, with only $600,000 left in the endowment that kept the place in business.

“We were burning $1.7 million a year and we only had about six months to live,” Mr. Cabrera said. “We needed to stabilize things. There were times when the bank was trying to foreclose on the loan. We were being sued by the banks and the contractor was suing us for the money it hadn’t been paid. We were losing money and the building was half finished. We’ve always operated under a deed restriction that this building must always be used as a YMCA, meaning the building didn’t have any real value and we had $25 million in debt. Typically you could say that something like that was bankrupt, but we were able to use it as leverage to deal with the problems.”

That was the situation Mr. Cabrera and his fellow board members saw in 2010. He said they decided the only way to handle it was to immediately create a break-even budget. That meant a lot of steep cuts and the loss of loyal staff members. Mr. Cabrera said it wasn’t easy but it was necessary, and those break-even budgets were in place for the end of 2010 and then 2011 and 2012 while $6 million was raised to finish the building. The First Bank of Greenwich provided $3.5 million of that through a loan and the remaining $2.5 million came from private donations.

This allowed Worth Construction to finish the work it had started, and progress soon became visible with the wooden staircase coming down in 2012 as work progressed and with a formal ribbon cutting in early 2013. There was also internal progress as, after years of turnover in leadership for the facility, Mr. Philipp was hired as president and CEO after working nearby running the YMCA in Rye, N.Y.

Even after that there was still much work to be done as ongoing work prevented the lower level of the building from being completed until last August, but since then it has been full steam ahead.

“We felt when we cut that ribbon we were going to be ready to go the next day, but that didn’t prove to be the case, unfortunately,” Mr. Philipp said. “We ran into a series of problems, but while that was a hectic and painful time, since then we have been able to grow membership by 15% and our programming has almost doubled. We have our youth sports programs going strong and our swim school is growing because we now have our historic pool to use again.”

While the Olympic-sized pool has gotten a lot of attention, including a one-mile swim race with Threads and Treads scheduled there for March 9, the restoration of the historic pool is something the YMCA leaders are particularly proud of. The pool was built around 1916 as one of the first indoor pools in Connecticut, and over the course of the last year it has been fully renovated and is now safe for use. It not only provides a respite from the often crowded Olympic pool but also has warmer water, which makes it more comfortable for use by children and seniors. The pool is the perfect size for teaching people to swim, with much more privacy. It provides water exercise classes for seniors and for children with special needs while also offering space for lap lanes when there’s not enough space in the Olympic pool.

The historic pool is just one of the familiar touches at the YMCA, like the continued use of the classic gymnasium with the track circled around it on an upper level and even a historic fireplace that remained in place inside the spin room because people liked seeing it. Mr. Philipp called this a “time capsule” and said members love it.

“We wanted to keep the charm but make it brand-new,” Mr. Philipp said.

Use is being made of the entire YMCA facility at last, not just in the fitness rooms where $100,000 in new cardio equipment is newly installed but in the meeting rooms, where a partnership with Greenwich Hospital has led to a lecture series on good health and other features like blood pressure screenings. Other community groups are making use of the meeting rooms and an effort is under way to get more groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the town’s Department of Social Services, involved in ongoing partnerships with the Y.

While programming could resume, Mr. Cabrera said, there was still the ongoing issue of the debt, which had grown to $30 million thanks to the loan taken out to finish construction. As much as people liked what they saw in the YMCA, Mr. Cabrera said, there was always a “Yeah, but …” because people didn’t know how the debt could be dealt with.

“Last June we got an anonymous grant that provided us with an amount of capital that meant I could now go to all the lenders and say, ‘We’ve got some of the money, but not all of the money. Would you consider taking a discount?’” Mr. Cabrera said. “We were able to negotiate with the banks for a full settlement on all the debts. In August 2010, we set out to have these break-even budgets, finish the building and pay off the debt, and we were able to do it.”

Because of all that had to be overcome, the YMCA’s current situation, with a fully operational facility and no more debt, brings sweet satisfaction to those who saw it through the storm. Mr. Cabrera calls it “the true comeback story,” and Mr. Philipp compared it to a phoenix rising from the ashes. The focus can now move to 2016, when the YMCA will be celebrating its centennial in Greenwich.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Mr. Philipp said. “I came into this job with a lot of excitement about how we were going to turn this place around and we ran into so many difficulties. But through it all, it was reassuring to know we had all these important people in town [like First Selectman Peter Tesei and Chief of Police James Heavey] talking about how important the Y is to them and to the community and how it should survive and go forward. That made me feel the town was behind us, and not having this debt was a huge weight off our shoulders. It’s not hanging over us anymore. This is a clear sign to the community that not only are we acting like we’re going to make it, we actually are going to make it. Now we can act like a YMCA and serve the community. We can live up to our mission in youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.”


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