BONITA SPRINGS — Three weeks after the Bonita Springs YMCA shut its doors, a community forum hosted by YMCA of the Palms left many community members unsatisfied.
A panel including YMCA of the Palms President Brandon Dowdy and Board of Trustees Chairman William Burke fielded more than 30 written questions from angry Bonita YMCA supporters at a June 20 meeting held at First Presbyterian Church and moderated by Naples Daily News Editorial Page Editor Jeff Lytle.
Burke outlined the “very difficult decisions” trustees faced as a financial crisis loomed ever larger, eventually forcing the May 31 closure.
“This community certainly deserves a YMCA,” Burke told the crowd of more than 100, which included Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson, four other city council members and the city’s new and recently retired city managers. “The last thing we ever wanted to do was reach the point we did reach where we had to suspend operations. We absorbed a loss for a number of years.”
The Bonita YMCA was open for just under six years, with the bulk of constructions costs footed by community donors. A capital campaign raised $7.2 million. The YMCA of the Palms issued bonds for an additional $3 million, Burke said.
After the April 2005 opening, projected membership numbers never materialized, which YMCA representatives blame on the building’s off-the-beaten-path location and the economic recession.
Dennis Church, chairman of the Bonita YMCA Advisory Board, said the organization did not do a good enough job marketing and reaching out to the community. The YMCA of the Palms also has gone through three CEOs and three executive directors at the Bonita branch in the last six years.
Church advocates a “debt-free transfer,” which would allow the YMCA of the Palms to transfer ownership and operation of its Bonita facility to another YMCA partner. However, the Board of Trustees voted against the measure, saying the YMCA of the Palms needs to sell the facility to recoup about $1.5 million in debt it has incurred.
That number has been widely disputed, and Burke was not prepared to provide a financial breakdown, although he vowed to do so.
“The facility was paid for by the folks in Bonita,” Church said. “I want the YMCA of the Palms trustees to reconsider supporting the debt-free transfer. It’s the right thing to do for our members and for our community.”
South County YMCA, which operates YMCAs in Venice and Englewood, recently acquired Lee County YMCA operations, and CEO Ken Modzelewski joined the forum.
While his organization cannot afford to buy the troubled Bonita YMCA, Modzelewski said he believes South County could make a Bonita branch profitable.
About halfway through the discussion, the audience burst into applause as Lytle read this notecard: “Why are we leaving here with more questions than answers?”
After the meeting closed, Richard Barber, the self-appointed spokesman for YMCA members, remained firmly persuaded of YMCA of the Palms mismanagement.
“We know no more today than we knew before,” Barber said. “They admitted that they have no data. Our solution is they close their facility in Naples and leave Bonita running. They have effectively muddled the financial waters and want to tell us we can’t sustain ourselves. How can anyone expect us to buy what they’re trying to sell?”
Mayor Ben Nelson also left the meeting unappeased. “It’s a very trusting thing for the citizens of Bonita Springs to have put a lot of money into building a Bonita Springs YMCA,” he said. “We feel silly because we didn’t realize we were building another Naples YMCA. Looking back, I would never allow my community to put that kind of money into a facility that is not theirs.”
Dowdy said he is committed to finding a solution which will keep a YMCA in Bonita Springs. “We do look at it as our responsibility to help facilitate a YMCA in this community,” he said.