‘I led a decades-long effort to give the building away’
A detail of the stained-glass window of the Methodist Meeting House in Bellows Falls. The window has been preserved as an artifact of the building that was demolished on Dec. 20.

‘I led a decades-long effort to give the building away’

Meeting Waters YMCA tried for years and worked in good faith to find a worthy steward of 66 Atkinson St. It was not to be, and that shouldn’t reflect poorly on the organization.

As the building at 66 Atkinson St. in Bellows Falls, which the press often refers to as “the former YMCA,” is being demolished, I want to offer some background information that has not been part of the conversation because no media outlets have contacted Meeting Waters YMCA (MWYMCA) in their reporting.

Alongside several iterations of MWYMCA's board of directors, I led a decades-long effort to give the building away to an organization or initiative that would allow for it to continue to be a benefit to the community.

Last Sept. 2 marked the 125th anniversary of the founding of Meeting Waters YMCA in Bellows Falls. Your local Y has served thousands of youth and families over those years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships have made your Y's programs accessible to all.

As the organization's paid leader for 18{1/2} years, I am speaking up now because I worry about the damage the building situation could cause to MWYMCA's vital services to the community in the future.

* * *

The first discussion about giving the building to another organization took place at a meeting of MWYMCA's board of directors on Jan. 17, 2006. The chairperson of the Rockingham School Board, now the chair of the Rockingham Selectboard, met with our board to see if we might donate the property to Rockingham Central Elementary School.

The proposed plan was to take down the building and use the site to make up for parking spaces that would be lost with the expansion of the school.

After a few months of deliberation, the MWYMCA Board voted to decline that offer but the request did prompt the exploration of other options that would benefit the community.

Since 2013, when the Board ramped up its efforts to give the building away, no programming has taken place at 66 Atkinson St. Y-ASPIRE was hosted at Central School, as it is in schools up and down the Valley.

The entire building served only as the offices for our three full-time employees, meaning we were using only a tiny fraction of its square footage. The budget of our small nonprofit - one of the smallest of the 2,700 YMCAs in the United States - could not support the costs of needed repairs without compromising our financial support of the Rockingham area families we served year-round with enriching out-of-school care (and which MWYMCA continues to support and serve today).

Those repairs were estimated at $80,000 to $100,000 and included a new fire suppression system, as the current one was outdated and could no longer be serviced.

Giving the building to a community-based organization that could invest in the renovations became our most viable option.

* * *

I engaged Dutch Walsh - then the development director for Rockingham and Bellows Falls and the executive director of the Bellows Falls Area Development Corporation - in our outreach and promotion. He and I were approached by several individuals and organizations, but none came through until a new nonprofit formed solely to restore the facility and bring it back to life for the benefit of the community.

In 2014, local citizens and philanthropists created the Bellows Falls Cultural Preservation Project. Their vision was very exciting to us. We waited for them to get their 501(c)3 approval from the IRS as a tax-exempt, tax-deductible charity.

They set up a GoFundMe page and wrote grants to fund the renovation of the building while lawyers for both organizations drafted a purchase and sale agreement. At this time, MWYMCA moved to a new office in downtown Bellow Falls.

The Commons wrote a front-page story about the purchase on April 15, 2015 [“For 1835 building, a promise of rebirth,” News] - a bit prematurely, it turns out.

The day of the closing, the other organization's board chair told me his group had changed its mind and would dissolve the nonprofit and give back all of the donations and grants.

I was gutted. We had a good-faith agreement for a year. We stopped our outreach during that time feeling we had found a fantastic partner to whom to pass on our historic building.

Christopher Glennon is the only other person or organization that approached us after that. He presented a sound proposal to our board of directors. His track record of involvement with the restoration of the Adams Grist Mill and his passion for restoring historic buildings made for a compelling case.

I left my service at Meeting Waters YMCA in May of 2017. I believe the transfer of the property was executed shortly after I left.

* * *

In 1998, the board of Meeting Waters YMCA was considering declaring bankruptcy. My wife, Sue, its former program director and now executive director, and I approached the group with a plan.

I am proud of all that she and I - supported by strong boards, committed donors, and passionate staff colleagues - did to not only save the organization but to bring it to a point of receiving four national recognitions for our work in BF and beyond during the 2010s.

Hanging over our heads the entire time was a building we did not need to serve our mission - one that cost upwards of $20,000 a year to heat and that was in need of significant repairs even back when we first joined the organization.

In my years at MWYMCA, we never had a capital reserve fund (or reserves of any sort). Financial assistance to those families who needed it was always our top priority for allocating limited resources.

Investing in a building we did not need was less important. Yes, the outside of the building deteriorated, as a result, while we looked for a new owner.

In hindsight, maybe we should have given the building to the school in 2006 to make a parking lot. Trying to “keep it alive” has created at least as much, if not more, negative media attention for a vital regional institution.

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