YOU CAN CALL it a rescue operation.
It’s not desperate…not quite…but it’s urgent.
We’re talking about a newly announced campaign to save the YMCA of Marquette County, and it’s being led by a group informally calling themselves “Friends of the YMCA.”
Most of them are founding and former members of the Y’s Board of Volunteers–citizens who had put in countless hours of work and countless dollars to get the Y up and running and thriving, only to find that the Y is now in…almost dire straits.
Okay, so how dire?
Well, the YMCA now has debts totaling more than $5 million. That’s not a typo. Five million.
More than half of that is owed to the federal government–specifically $3 million that the US Department of Agriculture loaned to the Y for its expansion plans.
The rest of the debt is spread among about 60 other creditors, ranging from small, local businesses owed less than $100, to banks and contractors who have claims against the Y in the six figure category.
Serious stuff. But not hopeless.
That’s where the “Friends of the Y”come in. They’ve been meeting privately to come up with an emergency rescue plan, and here’s what we can expect from them in the weeks ahead:
- A countywide petition campaign, asking the USDA to forgive the $3 million debt. A big ask, but without the forgiveness, the Y may not survive. The feds have done such things in the past. Expect the petitions to show up at the two YMCA facilities and businesses all over the county in the next week or two.
- A persistent effort to pay back the businesses that are owed money, accompanied by a request that if possible, those bills be reduced or forgiven altogether. Some businesses have already torn up their bills.
- A heavy lobbying effort directed at state and federal officials, emphasizing that saving the Y, which serves more than 5000 children and adults, is absolutely vital for the communities in Marquette County. Delegations of the “Friends” may eventually travel to Lansing and Washington DC to plead their case.
- A “Love Your Y” party next Saturday, September 17th in the Y’s parking lot. Fun, food, beer, music, a silent auction. Vangos and Double Trouble DJs are donating the food and the music. And oh yeah, if you want to pay one of those outstanding bills, no matter how small, you’ll have that opportunity at the party.
- A continuing effort to fend off lawsuits filed by creditors who are demanding money from the Y and its former CEO, Lisa Coombs Gerou.
About Ms. Coombs Gerou. We’ve attempted to contact her to get her reaction to the withering criticisms being leveled against her, but she has not yet responded.
And the criticism, boiled down, is this: She borrowed an exorbitant amount of money in the last few years to pay for the ambitious expansion and remodeling at the YMCA facilities, along with increasing the Y’s programs and payroll.
All of which sounds great, unless you can’t afford to pay for it. And that’s exactly what has happened.
Further, it’s claimed that she completed some of these transactions without the full knowledge of the Board.
True or not, it begs the question: What the hell was the Board doing while all this money was being borrowed? Did they ever see any red flags? Did they demand a full accounting? Did they ever ask how the money would be paid back?
Further, how did a professional auditor not sound the alarm? To be fair, it’s been said that many nonprofits are allowed to skate by with less-than-thorough audits but if that’s the case, shame on them, shame on us.
But back to the Y itself. While the “Friends” are undertaking the massive rescue effort, the Y is still open and operating in both Marquette and Negaunee. Payroll has been greatly reduced and programs have been cut.
Jenna Zdunek, the interim executive director of the Y and a 16 year veteran of the organization who had nothing to do with its current woes, is steadfast in her determination to return the Y to good health.
“We have tremendous support and a plan in place to move forward,” she says. “We’re doing everything in our power to get our YMCA healthy and strong again. We’re going to do it, and we’ll continue to serve Marquette County for generations to come.”
Strong, confident words. And she has 100% support from the “Friends” and the employees.
There’s been progress, slow and steady, but there still remains that daunting $5 million figure threatening the future of one of Marquette County’s most important institutions.
It’s under siege. Of course, the hard-ass cynics will say, “Well, they’re getting what they deserved!”
Maybe so. But we’re talking about more than 5000 adults and children here who had nothing to do with creating this crisis. They depend on the Y and its programs and its good works.
The Marquette County YMCA is a very sick patient at this point, almost to the point of life support. In the weeks ahead, it may take all of us–residents, businesses, and government–to pitch in and save it.
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