Merged Y's Flex Muscle

Richard Bergey of Royersford works out at the Phoenixville YMCA, part of the merger encompassing Y's in four counties.
Richard Bergey of Royersford works out at the Phoenixville YMCA, part of the merger encompassing Y's in four counties. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 23, 2012

There is a new political powerhouse in Pennsylvania, and it's right in your backyard.

It's the local YMCA, or rather, two local YMCA associations - Freedom Valley and Philadelphia and Vicinity - that are merging into a 140,000-member, four-county behemoth and one of the nation's largest YMCA chapters by operating revenue, totaling $60 million.

The Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA launches Jan. 1 with 15 branches serving roughly 1,300 square miles of urban, suburban, exurban, and rural populations. Three more branches are under construction and a fourth is in the planning stages.

Executives say both associations were financially sound, and insist the merger is less about money than enhancing programs and sharing "best practices."

"It was not a matter of a healthy organization bailing out or coming to the rescue of an unhealthy organization," said Jay Schaeffer, who delayed his retirement as Freedom Valley chief executive officer to see the merger through. He said there would be no layoffs, no service cuts, no consolidations, and no fee increases.

But the larger organization will have some financial advantages - lower administrative, supply and insurance costs, as well as the ability to attract larger donations and program grants.

Philadelphia CEO John Flynn said corporate and philanthropic donors write bigger checks when they see a larger total population being served.

The merged YMCA becomes one of the biggest child-care providers in Pennsylvania and a leading provider of fitness and wellness programs. That gives it far more muscle in state and federal policy discussions about health care, nutrition, safety regulations, land use, and taxes, officials said.

Near the top of the national YMCA agenda this year, Flynn said, is lobbying against changes to the tax deduction for charitable giving.

The merger also makes the regional YMCA more competitive for public and private grant money.

The national YMCA receives millions of dollars a year - $5 million from Wal-Mart Stores to fight child hunger; $4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for diabetes prevention; $4 million from the CDC for ethnic wellness programs; and $6.5 million in Community Transformation Grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to name a few.

The Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA may get a larger slice of that pie than the two associations would have gotten on their own. It may also see more funding from state and local governments, like the $3.5 million state capital funding awarded for a branch in Haverford slated to open next fall.

Once the Haverford branch opens, followed by upgraded branches in Lower Providence and Upper Hanover Townships, and a planned new branch and regional headquarters in Conshohocken, the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA will be near the top five in the United States.

One benefit that extends beyond the YMCA members is a sharing of pilot programs.

Freedom Valley has the Pink Confetti program, a free seven-week lecture and class series to help breast cancer survivors get back on their feet. And Philadelphia is administering a diabetes-prevention pilot program that Flynn said "could be the biggest thing to happen to the YMCA since basketball was invented in a Massachusetts Y in 1891."

Confusion about sharing, or "reciprocity," between the organizations caused much consternation as leaders sought to move forward with the merger. A vote was required from the memberships of both associations, and many members worried that the merger would lead to overcrowding at their local YMCA.

The Freedom Valley membership was especially hesitant, with some anonymous members asserting that Philadelphia children would be bused in to fill up suburban swimming pools during the summer.

After a contentious town hall meeting, nearly 1,000 Freedom Valley members voted, with 53 percent approving the merger. By contrast, only 110 members voted in Philadelphia and none voted against, Flynn said.

Schaeffer said officials should have done a better job informing members about the merger before the meetings. "We learned our lesson on that," he said, dismissing concerns about overcrowding or a loss of community-based programming.

"I put my life into the Freedom Valley Y and the movement as a whole, and I would never suggest doing anything that I thought would be detrimental to our members, our branches, or our organization," said Schaeffer, who steps down Jan. 1 after 42 years with the YMCA, 26 of them as president.

Leadership for the new organization will be evenly split, with Philadelphia's Flynn taking the CEO position and Freedom Valley's Sandy Lipstein as board chairman. Each association will have 18 seats on the board.

Flynn said he planned to retire in five years. By then, he expects the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA to be "the premier health and human services agency in the region."


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117 or jparks@philly.com.

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