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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 1 month ago

Sarasota YMCAs finding a new norm after changing ownership

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New leaders had to start from ground zero, rehiring employees and finding new members.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

A little more than a month after the doors were scheduled to close for good, the two YMCA fitness centers in Sarasota are functioning, though not yet at full capacity.

After the Sarasota Family YMCA in July announced it would close the fitness centers, timing and determined patrons forged a partnership that would keep both the Frank G. Berlin Sr. Branch and the Evelyn Sadlier Jones Branch open. 

That partnership — between Dreamers Academy charter school, the Save Our Y organization and the investment firm Project Stoked — has proved fruitful. 

Although the fitness centers closed Sept. 13, the day originally scheduled as the centers' final functioning day, they reopened Sept. 17, under new ownership. 

In that three-day period, Y leaders said they had to start from scratch: rehiring all the fitness centers’ employees, launching a new payroll and membership system, and rebuilding the computer system.

“Backed by the excitement of the community, that gave us the impetus to really move forward in a timely fashion,” said Lucia Barrett, a founding member of Save Our Y. “We are very, very happy, but we are certainly not out of the woods yet.” 

Leaders of the new fitness centers quickly began the process of seeking memberships. Currently, the Y is at 60% of its goal, which is about 6,000 members between both branches.

A sign outside the Frank G. Berlin Sr. Branch ays there are no enrollment fees for members. Brynn Mechem

However, Barrett said some members, particularly snowbirds, don’t realize the Y is still open for business. To combat that notion, both centers are open to the public for free on weekends throughout October.

Another benefit offered, said Larry Silvermintz, an advocate for keeping the Ys open, is discounts on memberships and low income members discounts, as well as a waived enrollment fee. 

“I’m confident that we’re going to be able to hit that number and keep this operation open and in the hands of this community for decades to come,” said Charlie Campbell, chairman of the Sarasota Y’s transitional board of directors. 

The Sarasota Family YMCA decided to close the fitness centers because they were no longer self-sustaining, interim CEO Steve Bourne said. However, Barrett said that with the proper membership numbers, there’s no reason they can’t be.

The organizations will, however, continue to fundraise to be able to make improvements. Previously, patrons have complained about poor equipment and run-down facilities, which is something Campbell hopes to improve.

Already, the new organization is making a deal to bring new workout equipment to the gyms; leaders just need to decide what types of machines would best benefit patrons.

Sarasota residents dance to the song "YMCA" at the Frank G. Berlin Sr. branch.

Leaders are also hoping to build on the community aspect of the Ys and are hoping to bring various athletic programs and weekend dances, as well as the Silver Sneakers program, a fitness program included with many Medicare plans. Additionally, the organizations are focused on creating a permanent Y board that is filled with people who frequently patronize the centers. 

“We really need to have people that come to these Ys very often, that work out in these facilities and talk to the members and talk to the staff,” Campbell said. “We are going to be engaged everyday.” 

The big hurdle, though, lies in signing onto a long-term lease. Currently, the organizations are on short-term lease that is set to end Nov. 17. Campbell said the partners hope to finalize a contract for the purchase of the land before that date.

Although he wouldn’t say what might happen if the land purchase doesn’t happen before Nov. 17, Campbell said he is confident the deal will go through.

A patron walks into the Frank G. Berlin Sr. branch after it changed ownership. Brynn Mechem

Aside from the gym, Campbell hopes to work out a contract with Dreamers Academy charter school to detail how the two organizations will work together on the same property.

Both parties have said that they look forward to the partnership and hope to share resources when possible.

Dreamers Academy Principal Rubylinda Zickafoose said she is happy to finally have a location for the next school year after several other location options didn’t pan out. 

“This just seemed like it was waiting to happen specifically for us,” she said. “The Y and Dreamers Academy, the missions are so very much aligned. … We just felt it was like a blessing that was just waiting to happen to us.”

Zickafoose is making sure the school has all the infrastructure it needs, such as a code of conduct, parent and student handbooks and a staff policy manual, as well as furniture and technology. Additionally, she has been meeting with potential teachers and clients.

The school, which is set to open in August 2020, is expected to have between 200 and 300 students. It will function at the Berlin Branch site, located at 1075 S. Euclid Ave., though a building has yet to be determined.

In the past, school leaders said they will consider options for sharing space with the Y when it makes sense, though Zickafoose said that idea comes with a caveat: ensuring the safety of the students. 

Although facility plans are still in negotiations, Zickafoose said she is excited for the possibilities the partnership can bring. 

“I see, you know, just a partnership of after school tutoring, using swim lessons, exercise classes, mentoring,” she said. “I mean, there’s just endless, endless possibilities.” 

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