Lakeland YMCA Group to End Contract With City of Lake Wales, Plans to "Close"
Lake Wales Family Y is City-Owned Facility, Options Remain
Last updated 5/10/2023 at 5:09pm
APRIL 26 - A surprise announcement by the West Central Florida YMCA group that they are ending a contract allowing them to operate the Lake Wales Family YMCA has caught facility owner City of Lake Wales by surprise. The group issued a letter to the city stating they would be "closing" the facility, even though it is city property.
"They delivered me notice of a six-month contract cancellation yesterday afternoon," City Manager James Slaton told LakeWalesNews.net. "I informed the city commission as soon as I got the letter."
The city commission approved the purchase of the property in January 2020 for $565,000, solving the longstanding complaint by many regarding a lack of swimming facilities in the city. The purchase allowed the city to set Y memberships at half price for city residents and allow all who live within the city limits continued access to the Y swimming pool.
The city then leased the facility to the Lakeland-based YMCA of West Central Florida for $1 per year so that they could continue their key programs, including childcare and camps, aquatics, youth and adult sports and wellness. The YMCA group agreed to cover all of its operating costs and repairs up to $5,000 per occurrence.
The contract provides that the city will pay up to $125,000 a year toward operations costs, depending upon the number of city residents with discounted memberships.
The group is also cancelling its management agreement with the city for the operation of the Albert Kirkland Gymnasium.
In a written statement emailed to LakeWalesNews.net, West Central Florida YMCA CEO Elaine Thompson said “This was a difficult decision that came with YMCA Executive Board approval. We carefully evaluated operations at the Lake Wales Branch and there are a number of factors that brought us to this decision. Unfortunately, Lake Wales has a small population density that makes it extremely difficult to support a viable YMCA facility, particularly in the post-pandemic environment with rising costs and work force shortages.”
“Operationally," she added, "the facility has been running at a deficit for years and we have been diligently trying to make it work. However, when you take emotions out of the equation and look at facts, the decision to close the facility is evident.”
Several area residents have complained about the way the facility has been managed by the Lakeland-based group. Broken equipment and instances of classes cancelled at the last minute due to lack of staff were among issues cited by residents contacted by LakeWalesNews.net.
Staff also cancelled the popular "Turkey Trot" 5K run, a primary fundraising source, after eliminating the position of the person who ran it.
A local group raised the community donations that constructed the original Family Y in the 1980s after operating from a small building on SR 60 for a decade. That group eventually turned the facility over to the Lakeland group, which then sold it to the city.
"It's quite a kick in the gut," said incoming City Commissioner Keith Thompson. "It's pretty sad, going back to the Clay Terry days, and Rich (Thompson, a former mayor) being on the board..."
"I'm absolutely devastated," said Lake Wales resident Ronni Wood. "Gerry Lessor (an instructor) was a lifesaver for my husband after he had a stroke, both physically and mentally. I don't know how they (the Y board) can turn their back on the many seniors who use the Y. It's unconscionable and irresponsible, and self-serving," Wood added.
"It was willful neglect on the part of the (West Central Florida) Y," said another person who asked to remain anonymous. "Administrative costs were being assigned to Lake Wales, but the staff involved were working on Lakeland issues. The resources that should have been spent in Lake Wales were going to Lakeland. There was no accountability. Most of the volunteers who used to work there gave up." West Central Florida Y also operated two traditional facilities in Lakeland, along with a a par-three golf course.
Slaton said he will need time to develop a proposal with associated costs for the commission to consider, but that it's "way too early to know anything yet" regarding future operations of the facility. He added that he was still open to re-negotiating a contract with YMCA of West Central Florida "if they are even open to it."
According to an official with the YMCA, it would be possible to organize a new, local Lake Wales YMCA board to enter into an agreement with the city for the operation of the facility.