Thursday, March 29, 2018

Regional Planners Join Call to Keep YMCA Open

The Pottstown YMCA on North Adams Street is supposed to close in June, but an increasing cry in the community is calling for it to remain open. Wednesday night, the Pottstown Metropolitan Area Regional Planning Committee joined that chorus.

One of the responsibilities of the Pottstown Metropolitan Area Regional Planning Committee is to comment on "developments of regional significance."

Usually, that charge is interpreted literally and "developments" on which they comment are the kind that come with new houses or shops, roads, storm water systems and zoning variances.

But the members of the committee, which represents Pottstown and the seven communities around it in two counties, had something to say about a developing situation in the borough for which they had no approval -- the decision by the Freedom Valley YMCA to close the local facility on North Adams Street in June.

"The closing of YMCA is absolutely an issue of regional significance," said Upper Pottsgrove Commissioner Elwood Taylor after the issue was raised by Pottstown Councilman Ryan Procsal. "It should be in Pottstown." Freedom Valley YMCA is "taking their money and not putting it where the people need it," Taylor said.

Membership in the Pottstown Metropolitan Area Regional 

Planning Committee includes officials from  eight towns.
"It's like having a centralized public library in Pottstown, it's necessary and so is the YMCA," Taylor said.

Peggy Lee-Clark, the executive director of the Pottstown Area Industrial Development Inc., or PAID, said she is on the committee formed by the YMCA to come up with recommendations for ways to continue services after the building is shuttered.

"There is some discomfort" on that committee "that the (Freedom Valley) YMCA is not really fulfilling their mission" by closing the building," Lee-Clark said.

At the suggestion of John Cover, a chief community planner with the Montgomery County Planning Commission, the local officials voted unanimously Wednesday night to issue a statement and send a letter opposing the closure and calling for the improvement or upgrading of the current facility.

Both will be written and sent by the planning commission so as not to delay the delivery of the message.

The letter will join the resolution passed by the Pottstown School Board strongly opposing the closure, a similar call by State Representatives Thomas Quigley and Tim Hennessey, as well as a similar effort, possibly pending from the Pottsgrove School Board, according to reporting in The Sanatoga Post on the meeting there Tuesday night.

Lee-Clark said the committee has been told it will cost $11 million over the next few years to bring the building up to snuff, and that $3 million is needed almost immediately to deal with issues of "deferred maintenance."

"That's about half the cost of a new building," Cover observed.

The voting concluded, Lee-Clark then said she wants to "change the narrative" that has been "appearing in the press" about the issue.

"Poverty does not define Pottstown," she said. "Albeit this is a loss, and I understand anger about how it has been handled, but it is not a crushing to the borough and I think I have to change that narrative. I don't look at it as one more blow to Pottstown," she said.

Noting that it is her responsibility to try to expand Pottstown's property tax base, Lee-Clark said "from my perspective, I have to go forward as if the building is vacant. I'm not interested in filling it with another non-profit."

While I understand that perspective, I'm afraid I am going to have to call "hogwash."

How can the person who touts Pottstown's "diversity" in PAID's marketing materials, try to minimize what the loss of the YMCA will mean to its low-income community? Maybe because it's the same person who oversaw the production of the first "I Pick Pottstown" video, which touts our "diversity," but neglects to show a single person of color.

As someone who was once a member of the YMCA; whose son learned to swim there; to play basketball there (and learned he would never be a basketball player there); who learned karate there; who met his very best friend there, I can tell you it wouldn't have happened in a "Y Without Walls," which is the snappy sounding but meaningless alternative the Freedom Valley Y is peddling here in Pottstown, all while if builds glass and steel castles in affluent Main Line suburbs.

Perhaps if Lee-Clark lived in the borough she is charged with improving, instead of going home every night a Chester County farm house, she would have a more organic understand of why closing the Y is a "crushing blow," why it is so important for families struggling to keep their kids off the streets to have a place to go, where they can be safe and have mentors.

It's not just the "low-income" community that is affected by this closure. 

The advantage of "diversity" is that it brings people of different financial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds together in shared experiences and foments understanding across financial and social divides. So if it is hurtful to the "low-income" folks in a diverse community, that means it is hurtful to the ENTIRE COMMUNITY.

It doesn't make it less important if the low-income community is disproportionately affected, it makes it MORE important because those folks are the ones already struggling under the heaviest burdens.

Pottstown's low-income community is not something to be ashamed of; not something that needs to be downplayed. They are proud hard-working people who may need some help to get by, or have fallen on hard times, or are struggling to overcome a fractured home life. They are the heart and soul of Pottstown just as much as Weitzenkorn's, Brunish's or Sunnybrook Ballroom. 

That's what "diversity" means, embracing the differences and making the most of what it has to offer, not dismissing the impact on the poor and lamenting it being showcased in the local newspaper like a community's dirty laundry.

Look, we all understand it might make marketing Pottstown to investors harder if the newspaper has a string of headlines blaring about the community being up in arms because the YMCA is abandoning its mission to help low-income communities. But that's the job Lee-Clark signed up for. It's a hard job, that's why it pays $86,000 a year, and we'll be damned if we're going to lay down and lose a vital and historic community resource just to pretty up the marketing brochure.

Maybe we should start marketing Pottstown as a place that stands up and fights for its due.

Anyhoo, enough speechifying.

In point of fact, most of the regional planning meeting was taken up with discussion of the regional trail system being planned, and the most likely portions of it to be developed first.

Also discussed was a housing development project in New Hanover near Swamp Pike and New Hanover Square Road.

You can find all of that in the Tweets below and in subsequent articles in The Mercury.

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