Emotional, combative pleas on both sides emerged Thursday in the first public debate on the merits of Payson’s plan to lease 5 acres of land in Rumsey Park to the YMCA.
Advocates for the YMCA said the partnership represents the only chance to get a year-round pool, teen center and infusion of $5.6-million to build urgently needed facilities for kids and families. By contrast, critics said a town-subsidized YMCA would be the recreational equivalent of Walmart, crushing existing health clubs and siphoning money away from local charities.
The advocates got the most applause in the crowd of 50 people at the Business Buzz luncheon, held in the big ramada at Rumsey Park.
“You have totally misunderstood what the YMCA is,” said Gile Sievers, a career YMCA official who retired to Payson. “The YMCA is coming to town to do things for your kids. Let’s not be selfish and think of ourselves — let’s think of our kids, of our community.”
But Payson Athletic Center owner Ken Echols said the YMCA could doom his 1,000-member health club. “For you to say it won’t hurt our business, that’s wrong. This isn’t fair.”
Most Payson residents have already received a mail-in special election ballot spurred by an initiative campaign challenging a tentative agreement between the town and the YMCA.
That agreement would give the YMCA a 30-year lease of 5 acres including Taylor Pool. In return, the YMCA would build a gym, teen center, recreation center, fitness room, climbing wall, recording studio and computer room and remodel, heat and and enclose Taylor Pool to make it a year-round facility.
The YMCA would pay $10,000 per year and take over running the summer swim program, which would save the town $130,000 annually.
Friends of Payson head Vickie Lucas said the group that gathered 1,500 signatures to force the referendum is “not opposed to the Y in Payson. We are opposed to the use of park land in Rumsey Park.”
But Payson School Board member Rory Huff, who heads a citizen group supporting the YMCA, said the town can’t even afford to continue operating Taylor Pool, much less provide recreation for kids. “The current pool is done — the town can’t afford that pool. This is not a health club, it’s an enclosed recreational facility. It’s the best thing we could possibly do with that pool and with that land.”
The debate presented the details of the proposed plan, which would cost the town nothing and save an estimated $4.5 million in the course of the 30-year lease. At the end of the lease, the town could regain control of both the land and the facilities.
The town has estimated it would cost an additional $500,000 annually to administer a similar facility on its own.
One of the most heated exchanges involved Echols, who said his health club now struggles to stay in business — charging $20 to $30 per month. The YMCA has said it would charge $38 to $65 per month for families, half that for single adults and seniors, and rates for individual kids below $10 monthly. The YMCA sometimes waives fees for low-income families.
Huff argued that the existing clubs cater to adults and sometimes ban kids, while the YMCA focuses mostly on children. He said that about 12 health clubs operate within two miles of the Scottsdale YMCA and they’re thriving.
But Echols took issue with that point, noting that Scottsdale has 250,000 residents and can support both the YMCA and health clubs. But Payson has only 16,000 residents. “You just can’t compare the two situations,” he said. “You say it wouldn’t hurt local business — but it would. Then in the next breath you say ‘shop local.’”
Huff retorted, “they’re going to infuse more money into town in two or three years than the other clubs have ever done. The bottom line is that we need a covered pool.”
One person in the audience worried that the YMCA’s effort to raise $5.6 million would divert money from local charities, all struggling because of the economic downturn.
But Payson Councilor Su Connell said the YMCA would bring in money from a different pool of donors, including $1 million already promised by the Kemper Marley Foundation in the Valley.
“The donors the YMCA will be going after will be unique — I believe it’s going to be difficult, but it can be done,” said Connell.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the debate came when longtime YMCA administrator Sievers reproached critics. Sievers was the Payson resident in whose name the YMCA sued in its effort to block the referendum based on errors in its organizing papers. That lawsuit won in Gila County Superior Court, but lost in the state court of appeals.
“The YMCA is the largest, nonprofit social services agency in the land. It raises more money than any other nonprofit and spends only 5 to 8 percent on administration and overhead. We have a purpose in mind — we want to be helpful. I’m emotional because I’ve given my whole life to this — we really want to help you. Come on, people, let’s do something for this community.”
But Vee Gooding said that even though she supports the YMCA, the town shouldn’t use public land to benefit a private group with a religious orientation. She noted the town might just as well let the Salvation Army or Habitat for Humanity use park land.
Tom Loeffler, one of the two people making the case against the YMCA in the question and answer session, said the recreation center would make the shortage of weekend parking in the heavily used park even worse. “Where will we get five acres to replace this land? It’s a beautiful park and they want to keep it as a park for everyone.”
But Ensign said most recently constructed YMCAs depend on partnerships with cities and that many towns statewide are pleading for help to build facilities they can’t afford on their own.
Huff said, “If we vote this down, we’ll be the only community in the country that has voted against the YMCA.”