After a four-year saga that included multiple name changes, a real estate transaction worth nearly $4.5 million and a small-but-mighty crew of determined donors and volunteers, the YMCA brand is back in Sarasota.
The news — celebratory for longtime Y devotees devastated in September 2019 when the then-Sarasota Family YMCA shuttered its two branches in town — stems from a nonprofit merger announced today. The merger brings together CoreSRQ, which had been operating the pair of Sarasota branches since July 2021, with the larger YMCA of Southwest Florida, based in Venice. Financial terms of the merger, supported and facilitated by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s Invest in Incredible (I3) program, weren’t disclosed.
“This is a very exciting time for our community,” said Michelle Mitchell, CEO of CoreSRQ since April 2022. A former advertising executive with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Tampa Bay Times, Mitchell will remain with the combined organization, overseeing the Sarasota branches. One location, 1075 S. Euclid Ave., is near Sarasota High School, while the other location, 8301 Potter Park Drive, is in south Sarasota. The Euclid location will be called the Sarasota City YMCA under the merger and the Potter Park location will be the Palmer Ranch YMCA.
“This is the right time to be partnering with them,” Mitchell said. “I look forward to taking all the heroic work everyone has done to save the (Sarasota) Y, and taking it to the next level with the YMCA of Southwest Florida.”
YMCA of Southwest Florida President and CEO Gene Jones and Mitchell confirmed they’d been in conversations about a merger for at least a few years. A 30-year veteran of YMCAs, including stints in Washington, D.C., and Greensboro, North Carolina, Jones, noting “every community deserves a YMCA,” said the timing is perfect and “it just made a lot of sense to do this.”
The YMCA of Southwest Florida operates eight YMCAs in seven Southwest Florida counties, with more than 60,000 members and participants. This includes the former Manatee County YMCA, which brought its pair of Y branches, one in Lakewood Ranch and one in Bradenton, to the YMCA of Southwest Florida fold Jan. 1, 2022. The YMCA of Southwest Florida, founded in 1976, had $13.19 million in revenue and $40.58 million in assets in its most recent fiscal year, according to its 2021 public tax filings. (The revenue figure was up more than 130% over the previous year, when it had $5.63 million. But that came with a 127.5% increase in expenses, from $10 million to $22.75 million, and a loss in the most recent fiscal year of $1.59 million, records show.)
Even with the loss, the recent Y history in Sarasota, which dates back to 1945, is a bit more tortured.
In 2007, the Sarasota Family YMCA had some 12,500 members, former executives said. By 2019 that number had fallen to 6,500, partly the result of fitness center and gym competition, officials said at the time. The organization posted a loss of $900,000 in 2015 and $1.6 million in 2017, according to federal tax filings. Complications with strategic direction of services, such as a 2019 name change to the Safe Children’s Coalition, combined with the pandemic, led to more challenges.
Yet like some of the slogans and signs about resilience and strength posted in Y fitness centers worldwide, a group of Sarasota residents banded together to save the organization. An entity aptly named Save Our Y soon morphed into Our Y, which then became CoreSRQ, all nonprofits. CoreSRQ serves about 7,500 members across the two branches, Mitchell said. It has about 185 employees, many part-time, and had $5 million in assets and $3.83 million in revenue in its most recent fiscal year, tax records show. (That was against a loss of $59,189.)
The group dedicated to saving the Sarasota Y, both financially and literally, was led by longtime chair Libby Soderberg. Libby and her husband, Jon Soderberg, donated at least $500,000 that went toward a $4.4 million acquisition of both Sarasota Family YMCA locations — the Frank G. Berlin and Evalyn Sadlier Jones branches — in March 2020. Libby, an electrical engineer and former defense contractor, and Jon, an attorney and the former chief corporate development and strategy officer for New York medical device giant Welch Allyn, are involved with several other local nonprofits. The list includes the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation.
Both Mitchell and Jones, in interviews with the Sarasota Observer Oct. 27, cite Libby Soderberg as an integral player in the Y’s return to Sarasota. “In the past four years we have not only survived, we have thrived,” Libby Soderberg said in a statement. “We are so grateful for the support we have received, and this merger will continue to strengthen the organization and increase its impact in so many exciting ways.”
Despite its size and geography, meanwhile, Jones, who started his Y career in the 1990s as a summer camp counselor, said the YMCA of Southwest Florida doesn’t dictate orders to each Y in its portfolio. “We’re not a monolithic organization,” he said. “We are a collective of the communities we serve.”
Jones also doesn’t look at the future of the YMCA of Southwest Florida, now with the Sarasota branches, as just another competitor in the fragmented and mostly niche-driven fitness center industry. “We are so much more than a gym,” said Jones. “We look at ourselves as the community hub. Our north star is to positively impact the lives of our community, and of everyone in Southwest Florida.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.