The April 20 meeting of the Cambridge Association of Neighborhoods took place at the Pauline F. and W. David Robbins Family YMCA, where the CEO of the YMCA of the Chesapeake talked about plans for the Cambridge facility. It became a sometimes contentious conversation between Robbie Gill and CAN members as Gill laid out ideas for a new Y building at a different location.
A native of Charlotte, Gill was sent to the Y as a kid so he wouldn’t “burn the house down,” and he spent much of his childhood at his local branch. After college, he got back into the Y and made it a career. About 18 years ago, he decided he wanted to be involved in a small community and moved his growing family to Talbot County.
He told the CAN members, who had filled up Studio A, that his organization had for years been looking at how they could make a bigger impact in Dorchester County. They also wished to explore what a renovation and expansion strategy would be in order to maximize space for wellness, chronic disease programs, and youth programming at the 3,100-member Cambridge facility, a building with 40,000 square feet of usable space that was given to the YMCA in 1998. This exploration was put on hold when the pandemic hit, and the organization got into food delivery programs, childcare for first responders, and online learning for school-age children.
Once the crisis had passed, the YMCA revisited their expansion plans for Dorchester and hired an outside marketing group to conduct a study that included a survey to people across the Eastern Shore. They discovered that the current Cambridge branch couldn’t accommodate the amenities and services desired by the community, including a walking track and a warm-water pool, even if the organization spent $6 million on renovations. So, they elected to examine sites where they could build a new facility.
After testing the current location, a site next to Cambridge-South Dorchester High School, and a spot at the waterfront where Cambridge Harbor will be developed, they decided the best place for a new 70,000 square-foot Y that could serve 8,000 members was around the beach area and welcome center (with the parking lot, the facility would take up 80,000 square feet). An audience member pointed out that Cambridge has only about 12,000 residents, but Gill said that the YMCA in Chestertown, a community of 5,000, has 6,100 members.
The prospective new building would cost an estimated $25 million. Gill mentioned that YMCA, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit entity, prefers not to take on debt, so they are currently in talks with possible supporters, which they will be doing for the next four months. While the dollar amount quoted is “terrifying,” Gill is confident they can get the money, since they’ve built two other similar facilities on the Eastern Shore.
A female attendee asked why the 25 million wouldn’t be enough to renovate the current Cambridge Y to meet the needs mentioned in their study, to which Gill responded that the building would have to be torn down, leaving the community without a YMCA for up to two years. Plus, he said, it would still serve fewer people than could be served at the waterfront.
Someone else objected to the idea of the not-for-profit YMCA moving to the area soon to be taken up by the tax-generating Cambridge Harbor, which will have a hotel, housing, restaurants, and more. Gill said he thinks the waterfront facility would bring residents to Cambridge Harbor and make it a “community hub.”
“All those people at the waterfront,” said one woman, “aren’t those people who already live here and would go there and not necessarily be going there to spend money?”
Gill answered, “Those are individuals who would be going to the YMCA for specific programs and services.”
“Right,” the woman agreed, “but you’re taking up a chunk of the land there, and the people who are going there are going there just to do Y stuff. They’re not coming from other places and spending money at the Y. People already living here are going to the Y, right?”
“And you see a problem with that?” asked Gill.
“I see it as not bringing in the amount of revenue that we hope this, the best property in Cambridge, will bring us.”
That member and others wanted Gill to convince them it made sense for the YMCA to take up space on Cambridge’s “Gold Coast,” which the residents hope will reduce the tax burden and provide money for the local schools. Cambridge Harbor, they said, has the potential to bring in tens of millions of dollars that the community will never see from the Y.
“This makes absolutely no financial sense,” said the woman.
In response, Gill told the increasingly heated crowd that the YMCA organization wants to create a place where everyone would feel welcome and connected. After talking with many community members, Gill and his team are convinced the Y can make a bigger impact in bringing people together in Dorchester County. And doing that would require a site Gill called “neutral or common ground.”
“The reality is, as wonderful as this facility has been, it’s still the old white high school,” he said. “There are African-American individuals who will not come here because of what it once was.”
“I think that’s really incorrect,” a man on the second row objected, “because this place is full of little black kids all the time. The only people I can think of who might have a bone to pick about this place are old people, really old people who were here back in the day.”
Shawna Gregory-Smith, director of the Cambridge YMCA for the last four years, stood up and said, “I’ve personally had families come to me and say they don’t feel comfortable with their children being here alone. And I’ve also had families come to me just to say that coming here is unattainable, like it’s not for them. And these are all black and brown folks. So, I can attest to that.”
Changing the subject, CAN president Chuck McFadden said that people are worried the current building would be left empty to rot if the Y moved elsewhere. Gill said that wouldn’t happen.
“I’m sorry,” someone said, “but the track record here in Cambridge is pretty bad for people making promises.”
In an attempt to cut the tension, the man on the second row offered an idea. “Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, just add a building that has six pickleball courts.”
“Our only reason to exist,” concluded an exhausted-looking Gill, “the only reason this Y exists, is to try to make a positive difference in the lives of those people we’re fortunate enough to serve. Now, we’d love to serve more people in this community, and we would love to be a part in healing this community.”