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Sudbury YMCA outlines plans to save the local downtown operation

Organization hopes to boost membership, find new revenue partners and renegotiate some cost-sharing arrangements with the municipality

Sudbury's YMCA, which has sounded an alarm for the future of the downtown Sudbury operation, said Thursday there is hope the local building along with fitness and health programs can be saved by new investment in the future.

This follows an email sent out to thousands of YMCA members across Sudbury this week advising that the current financial plan for operating the YMCA and its programs at its Centre For Life venue on Durham Street is no longer sustainable.

The email message said that in order for the YMCA to survive it will take new investment and new solutions. Some of the solutions were outlined at public meetings held at the downtown YMCA Thursday morning. Executives said they wanted to be transparent and open to the membership. 

Reference was made to the fact that the Centre For Life building, roughly 88,000 square feet on Durham Street, was created more than 22 years ago with a condominium partnership between the YMCA, the municipality and other partners, who all used different parts of the operation.

There are also several other YMCA operations in other parts of Northeastern Ontario, including Timmins and North Bay and several smaller communities.  

But it is the downtown Sudbury operation that is so financially draining on the whole organization, said Northeastern Ontario YMCA CEO Helen Francis.

She said the Northeastern Ontario YMCA was a popular health and wellness organization two decades ago. But Francis said things have changed. She didn't sugarcoat the message. 

"So as we look at our five-year forecast, it's telling us if we don't change how we operate, our association collectively will lose between $300,000 to $350,000 per year, when we dissect that and look at it by facility or by department," said Francis.

She said the bulk of that operating loss across the North comes from Sudbury alone.

"Unfortunately, the majority of that loss is driven out of the Durham Street facility to the tune of $700,000 to $750,000 per annum," Francis added.  

Francis said this cannot continue.

"Status quo is not sustainable. So if we change nothing about how we operate, it will not be sustainable. And it has the risk of putting the entire (Northeastern Ontario) Association under. And that's what we want to prevent," said Francis. 

She said the group is working on a three-pronged approach, one of them being to restore membership. 

In the past, memberships were a significant financial driver for the YMCA. She said memberships would cover the cost of facilities, the cost of programs and still provide enough money to invest in newer programs.

Francis said the Northeastern Ontario YMCA was built on an assumption there would be 9,000 members. She said that number was never reached. It was before the COVID-19 pandemic that the YMCA had its best membership numbers of close to 5,200, said Francis. 

Currently the number is now around 3,100. Despite that, Francis said the Northeastern Ontario YMCA with Sudbury still has the second best post-pandemic recovery rate in Ontario.

Francis said without being overly optimistic, the plan is to bring membership back up to 5,000 in the next five years. 

The second component of the plan is to bring more paying partners in to use up some of the excess space in the downtown building. 

"So who else can we bring back into the building; other partners that can well use that space, some synergies with all the other occupants within the building, generate revenue, kind of really defray some of the occupancy costs," said Francis. 

The third prong she said is to renegotiate with the city and other partners about how to split the increasingly expensive cost of utilities for the building and the attached underground parking area, which requires full lighting 24-7 for health and safety reasons.

Francis admitted that despite the anticipation of a gloomy outcome for the Y, the message to the membership is actually one of hope that things can be turned around.

"Exactly. We really think it's a potential opportunity that we would hope that everyone would get excited about. Yes, there's lots of work. But it's also a really great opportunity for those folks that were invested in the centre 25 years ago, recognize the benefits of rejuvenating the downtown core, multi generational holistic health and wellness; all of that is still true," said Francis.

She said the goal is to make it work for citizens and be cost-effective for taxpayers.

Francis said she believes the new mayor and city council will lend support. She said part of the reason for this is that by not investing in the Y, the municipality might be losing many fitness, health and wellness services. 

"And I would say I am optimistic. I do get a sense that folks are taking this seriously and are willing to be part and parcel of creating those generative solutions," said Francis.

Len Gillis covers health care and mining for Sudbury.com.


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Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
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