Strange decision for YMCA to walk away

Residents of the Town of Port Hawkesbury and surrounding areas were shocked to hear that the YMCA of Cape Breton was leaving the region.

On January 28, the YMCA of Cape Breton’s board of directors voted to close its Port Hawkesbury branch effective February 22.

The vote was made following an extensive review of the branch’s financial standing and increasing operational expenses. Andre Gallant, CEO of the YMCA of Cape Breton explained that for the past “several years,” the board has “closely monitored” the sustainability of the branch, noting that expenses continued to “far outweigh” revenues.

“Despite our best efforts, we have never been able to turn things around,” Gallant said in a press release issued on January 31.

The branch has operated in Port Hawkesbury since 2004 and is located inside the Civic Centre. The branch has approximately 500 members, and the YMCA said members who pre-paid for monthly and yearly memberships will have their balance reimbursed within the next two to three weeks.

Gallant told The Reporter that in his 12 years on the job, “this is the single most difficult decision we ever had to make.”

The CEO said this was not a sudden decision that arose for no reason. He said the YMCA has been “looking at alternatives and trying different things for a few years,” including additional space provided by the town to run a kids program, as well as yoga programs.

If there was growth in the community, Gallant said there might have been more options to keep the facility open, but the population of the Strait area is in decline, resulting in a soft economy.

Gallant said the response from staff was varied, ranging from sadness, to disappointment, to resignation.

After thanking the people of the Strait area for their support, the YMCA of Cape Breton acknowledged the impact of this decision on the health care goals of its clients.

The closure of the Port Hawkesbury branch does not impact the YMCA of Cape Breton’s Sydney or Membertou branches.

As news broke, Port Hawkesbury Mayor Brenda Chisholm-Beaton maintained that the town will keep the gym operating, and in the meantime, will be seeking short and long-term solutions for continued operation.

In a press release, the mayor and town council thanked the YMCA for their years of service. The release reinforced the town’s desire to have the facility remain open, even though the YMCA will not be running the show. The town owns the bulk of the equipment in the gym and pointed to their concern for the wellness of local citizens.

This was unwelcome news from the YMCA which remained in the Strait area even through the sale and purchase of the region’s largest employer, the paper mill in Point Tupper.

For the YMCA to now claim that the Strait area economy is soft and there is no growth in the region, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the local economy.

Despite some population drop, the economy has recovered admirably from the down time at the mill, and is in the midst of a rejuvenation, not just in Port Hawkesbury but around the region. For proof look at the number of new businesses, young families and former residents who have moved to communities around Inverness, Richmond, Guysborough, and Antigonish counties, over the past decade.

Then there are the growing First Nation communities around the area which boast large and younger populations, new businesses and enterprises, and a higher number of people and families with disposable income than ever before.

The other questionable aspect of this decision is the YMCA noting that they were not able to make the local branch sustainable despite having a healthy 500 members of the gym. In area of this size, that’s a solid number, enough for the YMCA to make progress toward sustainability.

That’s also a number that could have grown, and can still grow with proper promotion. The YMCA said it tried different programs like those for kids and yoga, but what about expanding senior’s programs, or others with promise?

To close this branch, while maintaining branches in Sydney and neighbouring Membertou makes no sense. This means the Cape Breton Regional Municipality has two branches, within minutes of each other. That isn’t fair to rural Cape Breton and it begs the question whether the town branch was sacrificed to maintain both urban branches.

While the board made its decision on January 28, for some reason, it took days for the YMCA to make it public, instead waiting until the afternoon of January 31 to share the news. That was also regrettable.

Thankfully, the town has stepped in, and remains committed to preserving the gym at the Civic Centre, which is good news to those who need and want this vital piece of health infrastructure.

Unfortunately, it appears they and others can no longer rely on the YMCA.