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A Cautionary Tale for the Westport Weston Family Y

This letter to the editor was submitted by Amy Ancel, an elected member of the Westport Representative Town Meeting.

The Westport Weston Family Y has , and now they just have to wait for the $25 million they need to build their new facility at Mahackeno to roll in.  That will be no small feat in this economy.  It may take a miracle.

During the Conservation and Planning & Zoning (P&Z) hearings on the Mahackeno project, I warned both commissions that it would be an environmental disaster of epic proportions if the Y were allowed to begin building their new facility at Mahackeno, ran out of money and couldn’t finish the project.  They would have already cut down thousands of trees, carved away an entire hillside along the Merritt Parkway, and torn apart the property on the banks of the Saugatuck River and Poplar Plains Brook.   

A then-P&Z commissioner wisely asked the board to consider imposing a condition that would have required the Y to have all of its funding in place before they begin construction, but this prudent suggestion was pooh-poohed by the others.  The point was that there isn’t a performance bond large enough to secure the completion of a $50-plus million building of this size and complexity, should the Y run out of money.  But the zoners essentially said, “What me worry?”

Unfortunately, we should be plenty worried if we consider what’s happened to the venerable Greenwich YMCA. 

In 2005, the Greenwich Y began its extensive renovation plan and addition of a new Olympic-size, 50-meter pool, a new regulation-size gymnasium and underground parking garage on their landmark building on Putnam Avenue.  Their project was originally estimated at $26 million.  Before running out of money, they got as far as building the pool and parking garage, and a bit of the interior renovation, but still cannot finish their “Renaissance Plan,” the cost of which ballooned to $41 million due to “unanticipated cost overruns.”  The Greenwich Y ceased construction in July 2009. 

According to Greenwich Time, the Greenwich Family Y originally raised $35M from three sources: “the $6 million sale of Calf Island to the federal government; $10 million from donors, of which about $6 million was contributed by their own board of directors; and a $20 million loan issued through the Connecticut Health and Educational Facilities Authority (CHEFA).”  They are still short $6 million to complete their project, and only 60% of the building is currently accessible because of the work stoppage.

But wait, the story gets worse. 

Greenwich Time reported last month:  After the Y halted construction, Worth Construction [the Greenwich Y’s lead contractor] and several subcontractors filed liens on the YMCA property totaling $4.1 million for unpaid construction bills.  The Greenwich YMCA pays a variable interest rate on its CHEFA bonds (now owned by JP Morgan Chase) and the bill for this year at current interest rates will be $450,962.68 including interest, according to CHEFA Executive Director Jeffrey Asher.   Mr. Asher also said that the Greenwich Y defaulted on its debt service payments a year ago.  

So while the Greenwich YMCA flirts with foreclosure and scrambles to raise $6 million in their hedge-fund mecca  - to which even a former Y director says, “They might be rich here, but they’re not stupid.  It’s like throwing money in a black hole.” -  Bloomberg News reports that “JP Morgan Chase, which now holds about $13 million of the Y’s bonds, has filed suit against the Greenwich YMCA and the town of Greenwich, asking a Superior Court judge to make the Y’s property available for other uses.”  

Greenwich Time  also reports that Greenwich Hospital is in talks to take over the Y’s new pool, and maybe the entire facility.  And the Greenwich Y’s most recent president and CEO has followed her predecessor’s lead and abruptly resigned in January.  Their story will probably not end well.

The Westport YMCA directors will surely argue that their project won’t end up like the Greenwich Y.  But if they start building at Mahackeno without the $50-plus million that they need in hand, and no more money coming in, they could easily end up in the same dire straits – except with acres of environmentally sensitive land torn to bits, Exit 41 of the Merritt an impassable mess, an unknown and perhaps unwelcome business entity taking over the project, decimated neighborhood property values, and the people of Westport left holding the bag.   

We’d better hope for that $25 million miracle.

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