Metro Milwaukee group’s struggle with debt problem may impact Feith Family facility
The Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville seems to be thriving, even as the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee is struggling financially and preparing for a massive restructuring.
That restructuring could involve everything from shuttering some branches to restricting programming at others.
When asked if the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA could be closed, Metro YMCA spokesman Megan Hakes said, “Everything’s on the table.
“This is the question everyone’s asking, ‘How will this affect us?’ We don’t have that clarity yet.”
But local officials said the Feith Family Y — the only YMCA branch in Ozaukee County — is strong and viable. It should not be a candidate for closing, they said.
The Feith Family YMCA has between 9,000 and 10,000 members.
Saukville Village President Barb Dickmann, a former member of the Feith Y’s board of directors and a water aerobics teacher at the facility, said she is “really hoping and counting on” it remaining open.
“It’s very important not just to Saukville but to our entire area,” said Dickmann, who has been affiliated with the local branch from its inception. “I believe our Y is very viable. Our attendance is really very good. We have a lot of participation.”
The Feith Family YMCA partners with the village to provide summer recreation programs, she noted, and director Jennifer Clearwater is active in the community.
Bill Moren, a member of the Feith Family YMCA board of directors, said he, too, believes the facility will remain open.
“People may wonder, but personally, I don’t believe that will be an option,” he said when asked about the possibility of the branch being closed.
“A Y is a tremendous asset,” Moren said. “It brings value to the community, and the community values it.”
That is evident by the fact residents of Port Washington and Saukville worked for years to attract a YMCA to Ozaukee County.
Hakes said the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA was built with about $5 million in debt.
But that runs contrary to what officials said when the facility opened in 1999.
Then, organizers said they had raised $4.1 million to support construction of the $6.7 million facility.
Chris Lear, a former Village of Saukville administrator who was a member of the committee that originally brought the YMCA to the village, said the majority of the cost was financed through fundraising.
“The original capital campaign covered most of the construction costs,” he said, including major donations from the Feith Family and Charter Steel.
A committee of community members worked for years to bring a YMCA to Ozaukee County, he said.
“There was a need here that was apparent,” Lear said — so apparent, he said, that the Saukville Village Board allowed him time to work on the project.
Lear said it would be a travesty if the Feith Family facility closed.
“I absolutely think that would not happen. I’d be surprised if anything like that happened,” he said. “I would be very disappointed if that happens.
“It’s a very strong Y. It meets the needs of the community. They have a lot of seniors, a lot of young families who go there. It fits a niche.”
Moren agreed, saying the Feith Family YMCA has a thriving membership and has become part of the community as a whole. Several plots in its community garden are used for the Food Pantry, for example, and it is part of the Invest Ozaukee health initiative.
It also serves as a community center, bringing together families and people across the generations, Moren said, adding it’s more than just a swim and gym.
“If all someone wants to do is rush in, work out and rush home, there are probably cheaper places to do it,” he said. “We offer much more here.”
The local YMCA has exceeded its membership goals this year, he said, and over the years its fundraising has “done really well.”
That’s not the pattern throughout the Metro Y.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee is facing “an unsustainable” debt of $30 million, Hakes said, and is working with its banks to deal with it.
The restructuring that will follow will be “painful and will require difficult decisions,” Hakes said, but is necessary to ensure the organization’s survival.
The restructuring and what it means for the Metro Y’s branches could be determined “within a few weeks,” she said, “or it could take as long as a few months.”
The debt isn’t the result of any one thing, she said, but “a cumulation of issues that have built up over time.”
The Metro YMCA was flourishing in the early to mid-2000s, Hakes said, expanding and building new branches, renovating aging facilities and expanding into charter schools.
“It did a lot of that through financing, through debt,” she said. “What those funds were used for were smart, well-intentioned things.”
But when the recession hit, the organization faced challenges, Hakes said. Systemwide, memberships have dipped 5% annually since 2011 as competition in the form of everything from private gyms and park and recreation programs increased.
Donations also decreased systemwide, about 25% annually since 2010, Hakes said.
“That, among other things, underscores the seriousness of the situation,” she said.
Affiliating with the Metro YMCA was an important step that made the Saukville facility a reality, Lear added.
“Would it have happened without the Milwaukee Metro Y? I have real doubts,” he said, noting the Metro Y brought a professional approach and experience the volunteer committee didn’t have. “Could it have happened? Sure. Would it? I don’t know.”
Moren said the Saukville facility is so successful that classes are packed. The spinning class meets in a hallway, he said, and Dickmann said her water aerobics classes has added sections to meet the need.
There are few parking spaces open during the day, Moren said.
There are expansion plans for the Saukville YMCA, Moren said, but they aren’t likely to be implemented soon.
“They would require a significant capital campaign, and there are a lot of capital campaigns going on right now,” he said. “It would be nice, somewhere down the road, to expand. It’s needed. We have the land.”
Dickmann credited Metro YMCA President and CEO Julie Tolan for tackling the issue of the organization’s debt, but, she said, “I’m hoping it won’t affect Feith. I don’t believe it will because we’re a very good Y, a very viable Y.”
There’s a limit to what the village can do to keep the YMCA up and running, she said.
“If I am approached, I will definitely speak to the importance of keeping it,” Dickmann said, adding she’s already spoken to director Jennifer Clearwater about that issue. “We’ll certainly do our best to keep it here.”
Image information: THE STATUS OF the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA, 465 Northwoods Rd., Saukville, is in limbo as the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee struggles with debt it says it cannot sustain. Photo by Sam Arendt