Government officials and YMCA administrators, employees and members gathered at the Evalyn Sadlier Jones branch.
Cars swerved around each other as drivers clamored for a parking spot. Residents with walkers hurried down the street, trying to make the nearly half-mile walk from their makeshift spot to the Evalyn Sadlier Jones YMCA.
Inside, members were greeted with signs of protest and messages of hope. They were swept into a gymnasium already packed so tightly, they had to squeeze through crowds to find enough room to stand.
Members above, crammed around the edge of the mezzanine, craned their necks and jostled for a better position. Some even climbed the exercise equipment to get a better view.
Even still, the crowd of more than 1,000 remained excited and hopeful. They were there seeking answers from Sarasota YMCA administrators and expressing their solutions and grievances to fellow members following the announcement that the YMCA would close its two fitness branches.
The town hall was organized by Lucia Barrett and Jim Becherer, co-founders of the ad hoc group “Save Our Y.” The duo, which has reached out to various organizations and political figures for support, wanted the proceedings to remain positive.
“This is not a gripe session,” Becherer told the crowd. “We know you’re angry, upset, disappointed and we know some of you want to vent. But we have six weeks to figure out how we can buy more time.”
Members of the crowd cheered as political figures such as Sen. Joe Gruters and County Commissioner Christian Ziegler shared their experiences at and support for the YMCA.
Gruters said “the way I am today” is a direct result of his 12 years swimming for the Sarasota Sharks.
“The fact that this many people showed up today shows you that the YMCA does matter,” Gruters said. “What was told to me by a couple people is that it’s like trying to bring somebody back after they’ve flatlined. It is going to be very difficult. However, hopefully the community can pull together.”
Longtime members and employees gave brief testimonials of their time at the Y, which also got applause. However, when it came time for Becherer to ask Interim CEO Steve Bourne questions, the energy of the crowd shifted.
Bourne’s announcement that the Y had not yet made any deals to sell the property, which would satisfy the organization’s $2.4 million mortgage, was met with jeers.
While not impossible, Bourne said it would take a lot of money — $4 million worth of debt payments, $1 million in working capital and $1 million in facility improvements — to keep the fitness branches running. This announcement prompted boos and shouts of “show us the books” from the crowd.
“We are cash poor. We are out of cash,” Bourne said. “The reason that we had to do this now is because over the years, we have been funding those deficits and we’re to the point where we can’t do it anymore.”
Laura Ann Oettinger, a 16-year member, said that while she thinks finding donors would be possible, it wouldn’t matter unless the YMCA saw a complete board change.
“You have a bunch of intelligent people here who would be willing to give money to help save this. I guarantee you, it would take nothing to raise what they need,” Oettinger said. “But we’re not throwing it into the fire and we’re not giving it to people we don’t trust, and to be honest, I don’t trust any of them.”
The Evalyn Sadlier Jones Branch and the Frank G. Berlin branch are set to close Sept. 13, though Bourne said if someone were to pay $17,000 on the monthly mortgage, it may be able to stay open for another month.
Emiliano Vivanco a 12-year-old YMCA summer camper said if there’s any way the YMCA could stay open, he’d want to see it happen.
“Seeing that the Y is going to close makes me sad. Seeing all these little kids that are looking forward to the summer camp, and it’s just truly horrific,” Vivanco said. “If there’s any solution to help us donate or raise money, I’d take it.”
When more members stepped up to the mic to offer their solutions, the crowd got louder, causing Save Our Y members to shut down the town hall nearly 45 minutes early.
After the meeting, Barrett said that Save Our Y will continue looking for a solution. Anyone interested in joining is welcome to the organizations meetings at 9 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in the Evalyn Sadlier Jones branch.