Ymca Plan Takes A Lurch

Site for proposed pool, gym shift and town may go it alone

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First there was a Y.

Then there was no Y.

And then there is.

Oh, Ynita, we call your name.

With apologies to Donovan's "Juanita" for the cadence -- let that serve as an irreverent update on the status of the long-suffering negotiations between Payson and the YMCA about a partnership to build a full-fledged recreation center.

After months of closed door talks and a tight-lipped council executive session, the negotiations have lurched down a new path -- and a whole new option has thunked down on the table.

Payson is working on a study to firm up a $5-$7 million estimate of the cost of building its own recreation center, with the help of interested private donors.

And at the same time, Town Manager Debra Galbraith has asked the YMCA to develop a whole new plan for a gym and pool complex on five acres of undeveloped land in west Rumsey Park.

As a result, the long-discussed Plan A has been scrapped -- converting Taylor Pool in Rumsey Park into a year-round facility next door to a new 10,000-square-foot gym, perhaps with a fitness center.

For months, that Taylor Pool location has been the only publicly pursued option. In that version of a deal that has been shuttled back and forth the town would provide the land, Taylor Pool and maybe $160,000 in operating funds in return for having control over the entire facility 30 to 40 percent of the time. The YMCA would help raise money to build the facility, then handle most of the operating costs and marketing. The YMCA already had a $1 million commitment from the Marley Foundation in Scottsdale towards the estimated $5-6 million cost.

Instead, the town has sent the YMCA back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan for a facility it might build on raw land in West Rumsey Park, now owned by the town's water department -- while Payson also investigates doing it all on its own.

The major shifts have taken place entirely behind the scenes, culminating in a closed door Town Council meeting more than a month ago.

Payson Parks and Recreation Director Rick Manchester said the new site and new interest in an entirely town-supported recreation center came as a result of the tug and pull in negotiations with the YMCA. Essentially, the town wanted a year-round pool big enough for school swim teams and a gym big enough for the town's sports leagues. The YMCA, by contrast, needed the kinds of fitness center and play pool options that would draw the roughly 800, $50-a-month family memberships it would need to make the operation viable, said Manchester.

Moreover, the interest of private fund-raisers has made it feasible to consider a facility operated entirely by the town. Although even if those fund-raisers came up with big money, in a go-it-along approach the town might have to put up the land and maybe 20 percent of the construction money and shoulder the roughly $400,000 to $500,000 per year cost of operating the facility, said Manchester.

Finally, said Manchester, several council members had expressed strong reservations about contributing land and the existing pool complex to a facility that would be operated by a private organization that limited use to its members during 60 or 70 percent of the hours of operation.

YMCA representatives thought the glacial pace of current talks was on the brink of finally yielding a deal, thanks in part to the Town Council election. Outgoing Mayor Bob Edwards had voiced public opposition to a deal with the YMCA, while Mayor-elect Kenny Evans has been relatively non-committal publicly. However, YMCA representatives clearly felt the election would unstick negotiations and seemed to have no idea that the town is now more focused on building its own facility than on the proposed partnership.

"We have always believed there was a great amount of support for a YMCA in Payson and to some extent the election validated that support. We will be moving forward with the town. The support group and the Y are currently tweaking the ideas before getting back to the town in the near future," said Jason Rose, spokesperson for the YMCA of the Valley.

Rose confirmed that the town had shifted the discussion to the undeveloped West Rumsey Park site, but declined to reveal the scope of the redesigned project -- including whether it would include the competition-sized, covered pool and larger gymnasium that the town wants.

"The ball is in our court and we're hopeful that ball will be on a new basketball court. We are actively evaluating the plan," said Rose.

In response to questions about whether Payson is big enough to support a YMCA, Rose noted that nationwide 188 YMCAs operate in towns smaller than 25,000, including 89 in towns with less than 16,000 residents.

"This is not the YMCA's first rodeo. They've built hundreds of wonderful facilities. They believe the market is there. If they're successful, Payson gets an extraordinary new family recreation center. If they fail, the taxpayers are not on the hook. That's one of the great benefits of structuring a new facility like this."

However, early enthusiasm for the deal seems to have faded at Town Hall.

"My biggest issue is we'd be taking public land and using it to benefit a membership-based organization," said Manchester.

Contradictions and uncertainties still beset the discussion and the new options.

For instance, the recreation department mostly wants a facility that provides year-round open swimming, a place for school swim teams to practice and a gym with one full basketball court and two cross courts, plus ample seating -- to house the town's booming assortment of sports leagues.

However, throughout the process various groups have also said the facility should also serve residents without kids, like the retirees that constitute half of the population. One complaint about the YMCA was that it was too youth oriented. However, the extra facilities the YMCA wanted to work into the design even if it constrained the size of the pool and gym were precisely the sorts of fitness facilities that might appeal to people without children.

In addition, the town decided to shift the discussion with the YMCA to the undeveloped site to avoid losing the existing skate park and other developed park facilities at the Taylor Pool site. Also, even a renovated, covered Taylor Pool wouldn't be big enough for swim meets and other key uses, said Manchester.

Manchester said he couldn't yet release the names of the potential fund-raising group, but could probably do so in a matter of weeks.

He acknowledged the risks of negotiating with the YMCA at the same time the town was actively investigating its own facility. Suppose the YMCA stalks off in a huff just as the private fund-raising falls through?

"Then at least we're not left with less than Taylor Pool," he said.

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