A partnership with a charter school and a community investment firm will allow the YMCA fitness centers to stay open under new leadership.
How did a charter school, a group of community activists and an investment firm band together to keep the Sarasota YMCA open and forge a deal less than a month after it was announced financial issues would force two fitness centers to close?
A few factors, including fortuitous timing and some complementary interests held by disparate parties. But above all, according to those involved, the plan was driven by a collective determination to move quickly to ensure the community Ys did not shut their doors for good.
“The sense of urgency was a point of alignment that made all of these incredible human beings that didn’t know each other before come together with a shared mission and a single purpose: to save these facilities,” said Geri Chaffee, founder of Dreamers Academy.
That determination appears to have paid off. The Sarasota Family YMCA announced Wednesday that its board approved an agreement with the Dreamers Academy charter school, the community investment firm Project Stoked and the grassroots Save Our Y organization.
Terms of the offer were not disclosed, but a news release states the deal will allow the Frank G. Berlin Sr. YMCA and the Evalyn Sadlier Jones YMCA to stay open beyond Sept. 13. In July, the Sarasota Family YMCA announced plans to close the fitness centers on that date.
The release states the new plan will include facility improvements and the retention of employees at both Y centers. A transitional board of directors, under the new banner of The Sarasota Y, is in place. Jim Purdy, former COO of the Sarasota Family YMCA, will serve as the organization’s interim president.
“All details should be finalized in the coming weeks, ensuring no disruption in service to members — with many good things to come,” the release stated.
Soon after the closures were announced, Dreamers Academy emerged as a party interested in the Berlin YMCA property, located at 1075 S. Euclid Ave. The Sarasota County School Board authorized the establishment of the dual-language charter school last year, but founders did not secure a site in time to open for the 2019-20 academic year.
Dreamers Academy officials were still working on finding a home when news about the Y broke. Academy Chairman Thomas Chaffee said they saw the Berlin campus as not only a good site for the school but also as an opportunity to partner with a group that had a similar mission.
Chaffee said the Y’s popularity as an after-school destination made it a natural complement to an elementary school. Already working to open a school, Dreamers Academy leaders thought they could also find a way to keep open a local institution.
“There’s got to be a way that our needs and our capital can be leveraged into helping the YMCA,” Chaffee said.
The announcement regarding the closures drew outcry from members of the community. The group Save Our Y held regular meetings, including a town hall at the Jones branch in Potter Park that drew hundreds. As of Aug. 16, the group had collected more than $250,000 in pledges toward the sustained operation of the fitness centers.
Alta Vista resident Larry Silvermintz organized an online petition to save the Berlin branch that has nearly 1,700 signatures. He also sought out members of the community who might be able to provide a financial lifeline for the Y facilities and helped get Anya Adams and Jon Graf involved with the efforts to keep the facility open.
That turned out to be a crucial part of the recently approved proposal. Adams and Graf run a community investment group called Project Stoked, which agreed to provide bridge capital to make the deal possible, the release stated.
“As a firm, we are committed to creating positive social impact, and as members of the Sarasota Y, when we heard about the closure, we immediately jumped in,” Adams said in the release.
The Sarasota Y’s transitional board of directors includes Chairman Charlie Campbell, Adams, Thomas Chaffee, Ryan McDonald and Marc Schaefer. Campbell said Save Our Y is still seeking donations and hopes to secure $1.2 million by the time new management is officially in place.
Chaffee said the plan is to have the Y fitness centers become a self-sustaining operation. Chaffee said Dreamers Academy intends to open in August 2020. Site plans for the Berlin campus are still to be determined, but he said the school intends to use an existing building on the property as its primary facility. The school will consider other options for sharing space where it makes sense, Chaffee said.
The concept of a school partnering with a Y wasn’t an original idea, Dreamers Academy officials said. In Orlando, NorthLake Park Community School is located inside the Lake Nona YMCA Family Center. Although that is not the exact model Dreamers Academy intends to use, it indicated a similar arrangement could work.
“A big part of this is we’re going to be sharing a lot of the resources of the land,” Chaffee said.
City Commissioner Hagen Brody said city officials were willing to assist in ensuring the success of the Y’s new arrangement.
“That includes fast-tracking any permitting or zoning changes necessary and [supporting] any and all appropriate waivers allowable by law in order to keep this community asset viable,” Brody said in an email Tuesday.
Chaffee said the proposal was able to come together as quickly as it did because of the number of talented, dedicated people who offered to contribute.
“Only in Sarasota,” Chaffee said. “CEOs, COOs and operations experts, bankers, lawyers — they all came out of the woodwork [saying], ‘I want to help.’ We were very fortunate to have a deep bench.”