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YMCA: Troubling aspects of a good project

February 25, 2000

Supporters of the Hagerstown YMCA have done a marvelous job of fund-raising and planning for what looks like a fine new sports building on the north end of town.

Assuming Hagerstown Councilman Wally McClure doesn't force a referendum on the project, the construction drive is a good example of what the community can achieve when not bound to earth too heavily by local politicians.

But if there is progress in Washington County there must be a catch, and of course there is.

A majority of people I've talked to who live south of Prospect Avenue believe this: The Y is moving out of the downtown because a bunch of North End yuppies are scared and/or annoyed to have to walk near the predominately black Jonathan Street community and the drifters who stay at the Y and panhandle for change.

They believe the new Y will be little more than a Fountain Head Country Club-extended and that the city kids, the poor and the disadvantaged - the very people the Y is supposed to serve - will be unable to afford or get transportation to the splendid new gym.

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While the rates are too high for the working poor, local gym and health-club owners say they will be too low for honest competition in the private sector. Therefore, they object to a $750,000 grant from the County Commissioners that they say will effectively subsidize an indoor playground for well-heeled gym rats at the expense of private enterprise.

At least two commissioners are already dubious. And one of the things that troubled them about the expenditure was something that should trouble everyone. That's the way this $750,000 magically "appeared" in the county budget - a budget we've all been led to believe is strung so tight by the sewer debt that the commissioners can barely afford to buy soup, much less schools.

The stadium proposal, which would actually be considerably no drain on the county budget, has been publicly debated from every conceivable angle.

But here's the county ready to spend $750,000 that it ostensibly does not have, and the county administration was apparently looking to sneak it through under the dark of night.

This is the Masters golf trip, facilitated by pension provider INVESCO, all over again. Or the Y2K software contract that was awarded to a vendor whose bid was the highest, not the lowest - more than $1 million higher.

This smacks of a backdoor deal that, had it not been for local gym owners, might have escaped public debate. The commissioners may have changed, but the county administration obviously hasn't. It's too bad a good organization like the YMCA had to get caught up in the county administration's muckish way of doing business.

Of course there is the possibility that the administration is right, and this is a worthwhile expense, regardless of the dysfunctional way it went about slipping it into the budget.

I don't think there is any question about the need for a new YMCA. Neither should there be any question about the value of the programs offered by the Y. And some of these programs aren't duplicated in the private sector, so there is justification in spending some tax money.

Further, a healthy community is in everyone's best interest. From fewer medical bills to the general well-being and quality of a more active, interested lifestyle, the YMCA also provides a valuable service that is worthy of public support.

But it must be the entire public. If the county is to pitch in three quarters of a million dollars it should get some assurances from the Y that the benefits will be spread over all economic and social and racial classes. The county should get agreements, in writing, not in winking, that poorer people will be offered memberships on a sliding scale relative to their ability to pay.

The county should get written guarantees that the Y will run a shuttle from the downtown and from the Jonathan Street area so city kids aren't shut out. A volunteer advocate should actively recruit minorities and families of lower income and the efforts should be genuine, not just in the form of an apathetic leaflet stapled to a bulletin board. Everyone should be invited to play, and made welcome when they come.

I can't imagine the Y would object to putting any of these guarantees in writing for the Commissioners, particularly since they probably would cost just a fraction of the public money they would be getting in return.

If the Y protests, all you're left with is that the South-siders are right. That the $750,000 would not be used for the benefit of the entire community, but would go toward subsidizing the memberships of middle- and upper-class sport-utility set - the very people who don't need a financial break.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-mail columnist.

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