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Cash woes may shutter Catalpa ‘Y’

Beneath the clattering dumbbells and the patter of children's feet, the Catalpa YMCA is a relic of another time that never fully adapted to its modern-day use. Originally erected as a courthouse, the building still carries small vestiges of its original purpose, like the words "In God We Trust" plastered on the weight room's rear wall and doorknobs inscribed with "Queens County Court House."

But now that history is coming back to haunt the beloved Ridgewood community center. The board of directors for the YMCA of Greater New York has decided to close the facility at the end of June, citing the building's inadequacy and its mounting saddle of debt. Although some programs will continue in satellite locations, others will be eliminated entirely.

"We have a commitment to having equally excellent space for our programs everywhere across the city," said Anvernette Hanna, a spokeswoman for the YMCA of Greater New York. "Our board just felt this building wasn't the right building."

For a neighborhood that has grown to rely on the Catalpa YMCA for its community programs and youth services, however, the news came as a major blow at a time when the city's economic problems are already putting people on edge.

"This is home for us," said Juan Pons, 41, a bus operator who has been working out at Catalpa for the past decade. "I hate to see this place go."

Although the Catalpa YMCA began serving Ridgewood and Glendale in 1946, it moved into its current home at 64th Street and Catalpa Avenue in 1965 after the organization bought the property from the city.

The building now boasts a gymnasium, weight room and classrooms that were carved from the shell of the courthouse, but nearly four decades later it cannot shed its history. One of the pre-kindergarten classrooms in the basement occupies the courthouse's former jail cell, while the judge's chambers on the second story are too small to house any regular programs.

Half a million dollars have been spent on emergency repairs over the past five years, and the non-profit organization would have to invest an additional $4 million on renovations to meet the space requirements for the YMCA's programs.

Even then "it still would not be sufficient," Hanna said. "The board basically made the decision that we need to stop spending the money."

The impending closure is unrelated to YMCA's ambitions of building a facility on the former site of the Keyspan gas tanks in Maspeth, which Hanna said is "not on the table at the moment."

Members of the Catalpa YMCA do not dispute that the facility is far from ideal.

"If we're gonna put $4 million into this building, let's buy a new building and put $4 million into that," said Chris Landano, 25, a paramedic with the Fire Department who has been involved with Catalpa for 12 years. "The YMCA is so important and needed in this neighborhood."

But for them, the building is priceless - even with its flaws - simply because it houses the youth center, the athletic programs and the nursery school they have come to count on. All they are asking for is a chance to stay put.

"We're working hard on saving it. We have to raise a decent amount of money," said Landano, who wants to get enough funding pledges to fill in Catalpa's operating deficit. "I love the YMCA, it's done so much for me. It built my confidence, my responsibility levels - it made me the whole person I am."

But the building is already up for sale. Although the deed on the property dictates that it can only be sold to a non-profit organization in the community, what will ultimately end up there is anyone's guess.

"We realize that people may want to fund raise, but the YMCA has been fund raising at the Catalpa branch for a very long time," Hanna said. "Based on our experience, the kind of money that we need just doesn't exist in the community."

Peter Rosario, the executive director at Catalpa, has already identified two sites - Covenant Lutheran Church and PS 88 - where the YMCA plans to continue offering its programs for young people, who now number 2,500. Officials say they hope that figure stays put despite the loss of the facility.

But the more than 900 adult members will either receive refunds or have their memberships honored at other sites. The nursery school programs will be discontinued, to the dismay of parents who give it top ratings.

"I'm shocked," said Tonianne Vrooman of Ridgewood after dropping her 4-year-old daughter at universal pre-kindergarten on Monday. "It's not fair to the children. Children of the community are the ones that are gonna suffer. You have a fabulous staff here. It's heartbreaking."

Parents are not the only ones to complain. Community leaders like Bob Monahan, the president of the Greater Ridgewood Youth Council on Myrtle Avenue, fear Catalpa's departure will leave a void too large for other organizations to fill.

"We are quite distressed that at this critical time in the city, with budgets the way they are, that they would be leaving us with such a void," Monahan said. "If we don't provide constructive activities for kids and they have nothing to do, they'll find something to do. And many many times what they find to do is not constructive."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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