WILMINGTON — The YMCA of Southeastern North Carolina has long hoped to build a premium pool facility in Wilmington. After the nonprofit asked multiple local government bodies to contribute toward the project costs, it got mixed responses. Then, New Hanover County got on board and allocated recurring money for the YMCA in the 2018-2019 budget.
There’s one hitch: there’s no new facility at the Market St. YMCA — which has county commissioners asking, ‘what happened to the money?’
Since the agreement, New Hanover County has sent $300,000 to the YMCA, to be used for building a large-scale swimming complex, called a natatorium. Funding woes have since forced the nonprofit to sideline the project, prompting the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners to scrutinize the existing deal, which was signed on March 12, 2018, and promises the YMCA $1.5 million in county dollars paid out over the course of a decade.
The YMCA expected to secure funding for the natatorium in a parks-and-recreation bond years ago, but that money ended up going toward other projects, said Commissioner Woody White. The YMCA then approached New Hanover County — and also the City of Wilmington, the New Hanover County School Board, and the New Hanover Regional Medical Center — in an attempt to gather the needed funds directly from these public entities.
“When we were beginning the conversation it was more top of mind for everybody,” said Dick Jones, the president and CEO of the YMCA for Southeastern North Carolina. “But as life has happened, it has become less of a burning issue. We understand that, we know that, and so let’s kind of put a different strategy in place.”
The YMCA’s agreement with the county stated that construction on the project — a 25,000 square foot structure with at least eight 50-meter swimming lanes — should have started in early 2019.
Jones said New Hanover County is the YMCA’s first and only major contributor to its public capital campaign. The City of Wilmington tentatively allocated $1.2 million spread evenly over ten years for the YMCA, Jones said, but the funds transfer hasn’t been executed yet. A city spokesperson has not yet responded to a request for comment on Wilmington’s involvement in the project.
Efforts to gather funding from the hospital and school board have stalled, Jones said.
“We got a lot of support from the school board, but with all of the things that have happened at our schools over the last year and 18 months, we did not get a signed agreement with them, and you know what’s been happening with the hospital in the last year and 18 months,” he said.
Jones was alluding to a turbulent year for the New Hanover County School district and the Board of Education, which has seen three employees arrested for sexual assault and misconduct involving students, half of its top administrators depart, criminal and civil rights investigations, and two potentially class-action lawsuits — all of which has had a financial impact on the district. The New Hanover Regional Medical Center, meanwhile, is in the final stages of a controversial sale to Novant.
Then the pandemic hit, and with no other partners at the table other than New Hanover County, Jones said the YMCA began to reevaluate its capital campaign.
“What if we were to take our existing resources that the City of Wilmington has, the public pools, and what if we were to harden those, in other words make those available to be used year-round — would that help us meet some of the needs of the community? Perhaps,” Jones said. “And if we did that, that would give us some time to push the natatorium out a little bit, so it’s not an immediate project with funding needs today from all of our community partners.”
The availability of year-round indoor pool facilities is a marker of a vibrant community, said Jones, who added that prioritizing aquatic resources increases not only access to water safety classes for the Wilmington community, but also practice flexibility for swim teams in the local school system.
He said the City of Wilmington was receptive to an idea proposal of delaying construction on the natatorium and opting instead to fortify the YMCA’s existing structures with the previously-allocated money.
And on the County’s end, Board of Commissioners members addressed the agreement at the end of their Sept. 8 meeting, when they asked: ‘What happened to the $300,000?’
‘They are not proceeding with spending your money’
Commissioner Rob Zapple asked County Manager Chris Coudriet what was going on.
“Where are we with that? I know there was a natatorium that was a part of the original contract,” Zapple said. “I know that they have opened their pool. Is that it? Or is there more construction?”
Coudriet responded that the YMCA has “rethought perhaps what its capital approach should be.”
“And so the county, at the point that was informally made known to us, shared with the Y that we would not be transferring money to them, and that if in fact that’s the decision, that the Y should not consider the prior contributions from the board money to be kept, but instead should come back to this board and re-pitch it on what its capital approach would be,” he told the board.
Commissioner Woody White originally voted in favor of appropriating money to the YMCA for the project, but said in an interview that his outlook on governance leads him to believe that in general, the county shouldn’t involve itself in capital spending for nonprofit organizations. He made an exception for the YMCA, because he saw the need for a natatorium in Wilmington, he said.
White said that, as he understood it, “counterparts” (i.e. previous members) of the Board of Commissioners told the YMCA that its natatorium would be included in a years-ago bond referendum for a parks and recreation funding package.
Although the referendum passed, the natatorium project never made headway, and so in that fallout, White deviated from his small-government convictions to back county funding for the YMCA’s natatorium. He did so in part, he said, because it seemed like the consensus was that the YMCA would have success in procuring funding from all of its other proposed partners. And also because the public would benefit from having a natatorium at the YMCA’s Market St. location.
“You’ve got kids from Hoggard over there swimming at five in the morning, and you’ve got kids from New Hanover swimming at 9:30 at night,” he said in an interview. “We just don’t have enough space for even our athletic swim teams.”
Hearing about YMCA’s change of tune for the first time, White jumped off of Zapple’s comments to ask Coudriet whether or not the county would continue to pay the YMCA, and to inquire about the status of the already-contributed $300,000.
“This is the first I’m hearing that the capital has changed,” White said at the meeting. “Are they saying they’re going to keep the $300 [thousand] that’s already been appropriated?”
Coudriet started to respond. “They understand that is not—”
White cut him off: “Well what does the memo of understanding say? ‘Cause that’s certainly not what I voted for.”
“It’s for in fact what you described. They are not proceeding with spending your money,” Coudriet said.
White responded: “Well, then they need to give it back. Am I missing something?”
Coudriet paused for a few seconds before continuing.
“ … We were under the impression that they were reaching out to each of you individually to explain why their plans had changed,” he told White.
“Well, they can do that anytime they wish,” said White.
YMCA and County move toward understanding, $300,000 in limbo
Jones, the YMCA president, said the YMCA has received two annual payments from the county since 2018, and that the money is currently “sitting there in a holding pattern.”
“On at least two occasions, we shared with County staff sort of a delay in our original schedule, based upon getting funding partners around the table, and the last time we had that discussion was in 2019,” Jones said. “To be honest, with Covid going on, I just have not been able to get to the county commissioners to bring them up to speed over the last three or four months.”
A county spokesperson confirmed that $300,000 has been sent to the YMCA, and said: “The first time county staff became aware that the YMCA was looking at changing models was in May 2020.”
The Board of Commissioners asked Jones to come to their meeting next week, to update them on the YMCA’s plan. They want to know whether or not a natatorium will still be built in Wilmington. White said if the answer is ‘No,’ he hopes the money will be returned.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said in the meeting discussion that in hindsight, the money given to the YMCA could have been directed toward other nonprofits in need of a boost.
Jones said he is hopeful that perhaps the soon-to-be-created hospital foundation will take an interest in the funding campaign, and he would like to see the school board eventually get involved as well.
“We want to go down that path, obviously, but if we can do so a little bit later, kind of let things get settled in the community,” Jones said. “If we’re able to have some aquatic resources available — obviously not quite the same as a 50-meter natatorium — but if we have water available year-round for the community to learn water safety, to learn how to swim, to be safe, to be healthy, that seems like a pretty good interim strategy to help our community move forward.”
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