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Catalpa YMCA struggles to remain open

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Dozens of Catalpa YMCA devotees pleaded for support from Community Board 5 last week as they advanced their fight to keep the center open beyond its scheduled June 30 shutter date.

"What ever happened to the motto, 'Close No Doors,'" asked Angel Rivera of Ridgewood, whose 10-year-old son participates in programs at the YMCA on 64th Street and Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood.

The YMCA of Greater New York announced last month that the Catalpa center would close at the end of June because the building is considered inadequate and its budget continually runs at a deficit.

Wearing white t-shirts that read "Save the Catalpa YMCA Center" in bold red letters, people stood one by one at the April 9 meeting to tout the value of Catalpa's programs. A major community campaign is being organized by the newly formed Saving the YMCA Committee, which hopes to raise money to fill in the operating deficit and convince YMCA officials to give the facility a second chance.

"We're trying to raise a sizable amount of money to go the Y with and say ... we can be self-sustainable," said Walter Sanchez, a community board member and the chairman of the Catalpa center's local board of managers.

Peter Rosario, Catalpa's center director, appeared before the community board to dispel rumors about the planned closure, which was decided by the YMCA of Greater New York's executives and board of directors.

The Catalpa building, a former Queens County Court House, was bought from the city in 1965 for $50,000 and is now on the market with an asking price of $1.5 million, Rosario said. The money collected from the property - which must be sold to a non-profit organization for a community use - will be placed into a trust to support the programs the YMCA will continue to run in the community, he said.

A $500,000 deficit currently sits on the Catalpa center's balance sheets, Rosario said.

"The YMCA has never been able to successfully raise enough money here to cover its operating deficit and to have a capital campaign," Rosario told the community board. "Although they tried to raise money in Ridgewood for the Catalpa YMCA, the campaigns have not been successful."

In order to keep it open, the building would require a gut renovation costing about $4 million to bring it up to so-called "equal excellence," a standard comparable to the YMCA's other facilities, Rosario said. But the awkward configuration of its rooms would still render many spaces unusable for programs even with a renovation.

The YMCA will still operate many of its youth programs from satellite locations in the neighborhood, but other programs like its nursery school, universal pre-kindergarten and a fitness center for adults will end with the loss of the building.

That did not sit well with many in the crowd.

"There are a lot of parents in this community that do not have a place for their children," said Eva Didia of Ridgewood, lamenting the termination of the nursery school.

Rosario said the nursery school was not expected to continue because an appropriate location had yet to be found for it. Funding for universal pre-kindergarten, meanwhile, has already been scheduled to be eliminated throughout the state, which means the YMCA would not be offering the service even were the Ridgewood building to stay open, Rosario said.

Nancy Greco, a former pre-school director at Catalpa, criticized the YMCA for failing to notify the community sooner about the impending closure.

"When children are concerned, they need a little more preparation time," she said.

Chris Landano, a volunteer who heads the Saving the YMCA Committee, called into question the $4 million YMCA officials claim is necessary to upgrade the building.

"They want to make it a YMCA that can fly to Pluto for $4 million," he said.

The last speaker was Tiffany Mesk, a 17-year-old who has spent 12 years in YMCA programs.

"I'm a Y kid and I'm very proud of it," she said, flanked by four other Y kids. "The Y has done so much for me. We're the only community center for the community."

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

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