At the earliest, it will be this time next year before the shiny new YMCA rising at the corner of South Park and Sackville Streets can open its doors to members. President and CEO of the Greater Halifax YMCA, Brian Posavad, tells the Halifax Examiner that, “like the rest of the projects in Halifax right now, it’s very difficult to come in on time and on budget with everyone being so busy.”
The developer, SouthWest Properties, is targeting next fall to hand over the 70,000 square-foot facility. Posavad says the agency will need six to eight weeks after taking possession to equip the Y before it can officially welcome the public. The new Y will include both a swimming and a therapeutic pool, a gym, an indoor track, meeting space, and childcare services.
But unlike the former YMCA, those childcare services will not feature a daycare — a service included in the original proposal that won significant zoning variances and overall approval from HRM Council.
The new recreational facility has been eagerly awaited by its supporters since 2012, when HRM Council greenlighted the controversial development. It faced criticism from both city staff and heritage advocates. The two high-rises are about twice the allowable height under planning rules and are being wedged into a corner vacated by the CBC which overlooks the Public Gardens and faces the Citadel. The John W. Lindsay YMCA (named for the local builder and philanthropist who is also its biggest benefactor) at the base of the Pavilion tower will be accessible to people with disabilities.
The YMCA’s Board of Directors argued that the social and community benefit of acquiring a first-class recreational facility justified adding the extra floors of condos to pay for a building that would house a new Y. Then-president of the YMCA, Bette Borg-Watson, told council that the city was essentially getting a $22 million recreation facility for free.
That was then. Today, almost seven years later, the total cost of the project — including land, design, and construction costs — is closer to $40 million, according to current Y president Posavad. He suggests the construction component is in the neighbourhood of $34 million. The YMCA’s capital fundraising campaign reached its goal of $9 million, but over the next three months the Committee is attempting to raise an additional $1.5 million in donations. (Historical footnote: the estate of architect George Wright, who died as a passenger aboard the Titanic, paid off the mortgage on the first Halifax YMCA). Meanwhile, the non-profit has also gone to HRM council to ask for $1.5 million, a request which council will debate this week.
How much the project’s cost overruns will affect fees for both membership and other services remains an open question. Setting fees and planning programs are tasks for the new Y’s first general manager, Jim Pomeroy, who started work here last week after an 18-month stint as executive director of the Pictou YMCA. Pomeroy grew up in Burlington, Ontario, which is where Brian Posavad worked as vice-president of capital development and operations for the Hamilton-Burlington YMCA when it opened a new $58 million building to become the third largest Y in Canada.
How to deliver childcare services was one of Posavad’s first challenges on arriving here in late 2015. The former Y on South Park had a long history and solid reputation as a licensed daycare provider. When the building closed in 2014, it had 56 children in daycare. The children were temporarily relocated in May of that year to the basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Church on the corner of Cornwall and Oxford Streets.
But in a letter to parents in October of 2015 which cited unspecified “problems” with the building, the YMCA told them it was closing the location. With nine staff and only 30 children, Posavad told the CBC that the temporary location didn’t meet “anticipated registration levels.” The YMCA suggested that the children and staff could be absorbed at its Purdy’s Wharf location. A parent, Martin Cloutier, said he and other parents were “disappointed” and “heartbroken” by the notice of closure.
While the daycare component of the original proposal for the new YMCA building may have helped win the project’s approval from HRM Council, the problem now, as Posavad describes it, is a poor fit between building design and provincial regulations governing child care.
Because of fire regulations, daycares are supposed to be at street level. But that space is owned by the developer and is designed to be rented for retail to pay some of the cost of the building. Daycares must also provide children with access to fenced-in green space (and no, the Public Gardens across the street don’t qualify because of its many free-ranging grownups).
But according to Posavad, the clincher that made a daycare at the new Y “uneconomic” was the fact that the province was launching a school-based, pre-primary program for four-year-olds. Caring for infants (three to 18 months) and toddlers (18 months to three years) requires a high staff-to-child ratio; it’s much lower for four-year olds. Without the four-year-olds, the full-day childcare program would be expensive to operate. So the Y dropped it.
In its place, it has designated a “Child and Family Development Centre” for a 7,000 sq.ft. open space on the third floor. “That was originally intended to be a licensed childcare facility,” says Posavad. “However, it has evolved into our Child and Family Development Centre. You can use the whole space or carve it up,” He says sliding walls or partitions will be used to create “living room and play space” for groups of children and teens where crafts, workshops, active games, daycamps, and after-school ESL tutoring can take place.
The space may also be rented out for birthday parties but the plan is that groups from the Community Y, Citadel High, basketball clubs, Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and ISANS (Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia) will want to rent the space for some of their activities. One of the first priorities for Jim Pomeroy, the new general manager, will be to meet with groups to see how they can be scheduled and what they can afford to pay.
“No one will be denied access to our Y for financial reasons,” says Posavad. “We hope to work with guidance departments of nearby schools to learn which students may need a break on fees. Community groups will pay a fee to use our space. We’re not-for-profit…but we are still ‘not for loss.’ We need to be sustainable.”
There will also be a drop-in babysitting service (“Childminding Centre”) on the second floor above the pool for parents who want to leave their children supervised during the short time it takes for a workout or a workshop. Posavad says fees are being discussed and may be waived for preschoolers who are already enrolled in Y programs or through family memberships.
“I have opened a few YMCAs in my time and this one is really spectacular,” says Posavad. “I will be really disappointed if we don’t clip 6,000 members within two years of opening.” The CEO feels signing up 6,000 members is a realistic goal given the recent experience of newly opened facilities in both Moncton and Saint John, New Brunswick. The Pictou County YMCA currently has 4,500 members.
So the non-profit agency is under financial pressure to raise funds and new revenue streams for a building that is behind schedule and over budget. With the evolving demographics of downtown Halifax, “Swim-and-Gym” time for downsizing baby boomers and young professionals should be an easier sell — and far more profitable — for the Y than daycare spaces for very young children. And while the YMCA Canada website describes the organization as the country’s “largest child care provider,” it is also true that not every YMCA needs to offer all programs.
When HRM councillors meet this week, it will be interesting to note whether dropping the daycare — one of the “social and community benefits” included in the original successful proposal — will have any impact on their decision to weigh the Y’s request for $1.5 million.