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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

Lake Wales Likely to Assume Operations of Recreation Center After Departure of YMCA Group

Proposed Change in Operations Source of Long Discussion As to Costs

 

Last updated 8/28/2023 at 12:17pm

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The vanishing sign at the Lake Wales Family YMCA is symptomatic of a generally unfavorable relationship between the City of Lake Wales and the Lakeland-based group, which abruptly cancelled their management agreement after firing several key employees.

Citizens accustomed to using the Lake Wales YMCA facility can breathe a bit easier after Lake Wales City Manager James Slaton announced plans for the city to assume operations of the facility at 1001 Burns Avenue, which will become the city's "Family Recreation Center."

"We're running out of time if we're going to keep the doors open," Slaton sold commissioners.

"Our goal is to create a fresh, modern space for families to engage in health and wellness activities," Slaton said. "The facility is a landmark in our community, and we plan to make it better by staffing it with people skilled in recreation programming and business management."

The change in management became necessary after the West Central Florida YMCA announced plans to cancel their operational contract and "close" the facility. That organization will be vacating the building at the end of October, and removed the buildings' signage weeks ago.

Slaton told commissioners that he had explored the possibility of negotiating a new contract with the West Central Florida group, "but they're just not interested." He also inquired as to retaining the status of a YMCA through the national organization, but that too did not seem possible. He also referred to "various non-profit and private groups" that had turned down a partnership.

The Y currently has "nine full-time staff," Slaton said, but "the bulk of the folks who work at the YMCA are part time who work without benefits." Most of the staff will have to be replaced by city employees under the plan.

During discussion Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson pointed out the wisdom of utilizing local not-for-profit partners to cooperate with the city in providing recreational needs to avoid the hiring of additional city staff. Slaton described the arrangement as a one-year trial.

Mayor Jack Hilligoss asked Slaton if the city's assumption of operations is "a forever arrangement?"

"You've said you've discussed possible partnerships with other non-profits, is there still a door open to another group if they want to come in and take it?" Hilligoss pressed.

"I think the door is always open for that," Slaton replied, "but it does get a little more difficult once you've hired folks and they've become city employees."

Future operation of the city's Albert Kirkland Gymnasium, which has also fallen under a contract with the Lakeland Y group, was not discussed.

As part of the city's plans to assume management, Slaton offered the city commission a proposal at Wednesday's workshop meeting to enter into a lease/purchase agreement to supply the facility with all new equipment at a cost of $310,082, to be paid over five years. That will provide for both the fitness center and the group exercise room at the complex.

The proposals will come up for a vote at Tuesday's formal commission meeting.

The YMCA was originally constructed through donations by local citizens and operated by a Lake Wales-based board. That group merged operations with the Lakeland based West Central Florida YMCA, which then sold the complex to the city for $565,000 after agreeing to a dollar-a-year lease back. The withdrawal of the group from the management contract was a bitter pill for city leaders.

To keep the facility open, city staff has included $728, 00 for operations in the proposed 2023-24 fiscal year budget which start October 1. The city budget also sets aside $54,787 for supplies and $75.686 for recreational activities, but those numbers also include several other city recreation facilities.

The city budget also includes projected income of $400,000 for memberships, which Slaton and City Finance Director Dorothy Abbott described as projections, since there is no history of the city operating the facility.

The new "state of the art" gym equipment and fitness classes are key components of the preliminary plan, according to city staff. They recently met with consultants who specialize in designing floor plans for gyms and fitness rooms.

News file photo

Lake Wales City Manager James Slaton is proposing that the city assume staffing and operations at the former Lake Wales Family YMCA on Burns Avenue. A membership drive is planned to try to retain current members as the facility is stocked with all new equipment. The city recently spent $200,000 refurbishing the swimming pool there.

The aging equipment and lack of maintenance being performed by the YMCA group was the source of complaints by residents. Slaton told commissioners that if the Y didn't have the old equipment out of the way when the new purchases arrived, "we'll put it out at the street." The remark drew chuckles from a commission clearly frustrated at the actions of the group.

The City recently invested more than $200,000 enhancing the pool, which reopened only weeks ago. Annual swim lessons are free for city residents.

"Our recreation programming will include various activities for kids and adults," Parks & Recreation Manager Stephanie Lutton promised in a written statement from the city.

Citizens are encouraged to participate in the upcoming membership drive scheduled to start in October. Select membership joiners' fees will be waived for all members starting October 1 through January 31. Current members will have the opportunity to register in the City's membership database.

"Our strategy is to create an affordable recreation hub where families can be active and have fun," Lutton added.

A celebration ceremony and pool party themed fall festival are scheduled to take place. Details will be available on the City's website and social media.

 

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