Lessons Learned from the Family Y’s ‘Lost November’

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A contractor from Fairfield Electric Co., which re-installed the Y's electric switch gear.

Now that the Westport Weston Family Y has succeeded with its repairs to flood damage caused by Superstorm Sandy and re-opened after a month-long closure, it’s worth reviewing what we’ve learned as a result of our Y’s “lost November.”

Frist, the Y’s vintage electric switch gear, which is housed in a sub-level of our facility that was flooded by the tidal surge that swept up Main Street, needed to be entirely rebuilt. According to Pat Costanzo, the Y’s senior director of property and facilities, the loss of this piece of crucial equipment nearly led to the permanent closure of our downtown facility. Current building code requirements do not allow the Y to simply replace the switch gear with new equipment. Rather, the switch gear needed to be refashioned using the original blueprints.

As luck would have it, our contractors were able to track down those original specs at the plant where the switch gear was made long ago. “The switch gear is our building’s heart, and if you don’t have it beating, there’s not much you can do,” says Pat. “If we hadn’t gotten lucky in getting those parts made, there was a good chance we wouldn’t have been able to re-open at all.”

Is the downtown Y facility still vulnerable to flooding? Yes. Would it be possible for the Y to “flood proof” the building? No. Those remediations would be too costly; moving our electrical and mechanical systems to safer areas within our facility would require a lengthy closure and a significant sacrifice of space now used by classes and programs.

As it stands, the Y’s Lower Gym remains closed. We need to replace the parquet floor due to flooding — for the second time in two years.

Second, the Y’s temporary closure exposed a critical shortage of indoor pool capacity in our community. The Family Y is far and away our area’s largest provider of swim lessons; it’s also home to the 200-member Water Rat youth swim team, a nationally renowned Y Masters swim team composed of older athletes, and is our community’s primary location for swimming for recreational, fitness and therapeutic reasons.

The Family Y re-opened its circa 1929 Brophy Pool last weekend.

The Y struggles to accommodate all these aquatic activities in the best of times. During our closure, we were able to arrange for some swim lessons and practice time at alternate sites, such as the Norwalk YMCA and Staples High School – though Staples’ own varied uses of their six-lane pool (water polo, swim team, public swimming) meant that some Water Rats took to that pool as early as 5:15 am to get in their weekday practices.

In her 25-plus years of coaching the Water Rats, Ellen Johnston has sent dozens of swimmers off to college on scholarships; myriad studies have shown the lifelong benefits of participating in a youth swim program, still more research attests to the value of aqua fitness, especially for seniors. And, of course, learning how to swim and to be safe around water is an invaluable life skill.

The Y’s plans for its Aquatic Center at the new facility to be built starting early this winter at Mahackeno currently call for a 25-yard lap pool with 8 lanes and an adjacent warm-water teaching/family/therapeutic pool. However, a separate capital campaign was launched this fall to increase the lap pool to 10 lanes and to expand the shallow family pool by nearly one-third. Called “Just Add Water Soon” (aka JAWS), this effort has raised more than $330,000 of the $1.5 million required.

This is a campaign well worth supporting. The Y will only build what it can afford, but it’s abundantly clear that having a larger Aquatic Center is an investment that will provide continuing benefits to our entire community over the years to come.

Third and last: Though the Y’s flood insurance will cover a significant portion of the repairs, our lost November will add to our annual operating deficit. Like many other charitable nonprofit organizations, the Y gives out more money each year than it takes in, relying on private donations to make ends meet.

One of the primary justifications of our impending building project at Mahackeno, if not the main reason, was our Y’s pressing need for a new facility that can be run on a financially sustainable basis. Our new Y has been designed to attract the kind, and number, of family memberships that will place us on sound financial footing and allow us to continue to evolve with the changing needs of the community.

The Westport Public Library, once in this building on the Post Road, has its own ambitious expansion plans.

The recent announcement that the Norwalk YMCA is closing at the end of the year, due to declining membership and the cost of maintaining its 85-year-old facility, is a reminder to us all that the status quo – staying in an outmoded building in a problematic location – is not an option.

Our beloved downtown facility has served the Family Y and community well for nearly 90 years. But just as other downtown “institutions” – the old public library, old town hall, old post office, old court building and old firehouse – have decamped to more suitable locations, so, too, should the Family Y be allowed, even welcomed, to continue to serve its members and the entire community with a modern new facility in the only viable place it could be built: on the Y’s own Mahackeno campus, just north of downtown.

Superstorm Sandy taught us some hard lessons, but good will come from taking those lessons to heart.

(Note: To find out more about the Family Y’s “Building What Matters” campaign to fund and construct a new Y, visit www.westporty.org. Or join Y members and supporters at our “Welcome Back!” celebration, 7 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 11, at the Branson Hall of Christ & Holy Trinity Church at 75 Church Lane. A new short film showing what the new Y will look like, from both outside and inside, will be shown.)


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