Citing for the first time a decline in membership and inability to attract new members due to an increasingly competitive market, YMCA of Silicon Valley leaders Wednesday evening defended their decision to close the organization's 35-year-old Page Mill Road facility this fall.
YMCA of Silicon Valley President Kathy Riggins, COO Elizabeth Jordan and several board members' explanation of what seems to be a pragmatic business decision to focus resources elsewhere once the YMCA's lease of the Palo Alto Square basement space ends Oct. 1 continually clashed with the emotionally charged members who attended Wednesday's informational meeting. YMCA leadership initially prevented the media from attending, but did not object once the meeting was underway.
Since 2009, the Page Mill Road gym has seen a steady but not sharp decrease in membership, from close to 1,575 units in 2009 to fewer than 1,425 in 2014. A "unit" can be an individual or family. Annual revenue has more steeply declined, from $1,313,000 in 2011 to $1,232,000 in 2014.
Jordan said after the meeting that the Page Mill facility had a revenue shortfall of $215,000 for the fiscal year that just ended.
"Prior to that, for the last four years, it was anywhere between $83,000 and $120,000," she added. "We worked hard to try to attract new members. One of the things we have found is that it is difficult when you have a facility that tends to be smaller than others in the marketplace and that needs some significant improvements in order to be attractive. It's been a very challenging position to be in."
Jordan said that the Palo Alto Family YMCA on Ross Road as well as other nearby locations have seen increases in membership. She described the Ross Road facility with a pool, larger gym and room to host summer camps as more "versatile" than Page Mill, which is housed in a basement. Ross Road is able to compete with the amenities offered by competitors in the area such as the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Equinox and the numerous boutique gyms that have opened in Palo Alto in recent years. She said the proximity of Equinox located directly across El Camino Real from the Page Mill branch has "been a real hamstring for us."
Members took a microphone one by one to express their indignation at the way the decision to close the gym was made and to urge leadership to find alternative solutions.
"It seems like this is a meeting that should have occurred months ago," member Chuck Kinney said to a round of applause. "I get the strong feeling that it's over."
"We've never closed the ranch before," Jordan told the Weekly after the meeting. "This is something that happens so very rarely within YMCAs Ö in my 22 years, it's certainly the only closing I've witnessed. We heard that clearly people wanted to have a different process. We can't change what's been done .. but we acknowledge it."
Bud Bennington, a former Page Mill Road board member, asked the YMCA representatives if it would be possible or if they would be willing to work with the landlord to buy the members some more time with a month-to-month lease or a one-year extension.
Board member John Savage said they did talk to the landlord about extending the lease for a year.
"That's what we thought would be the right solution," he said.
But the landlord, WSJ Properties, is planning a major renovation of the building for early next year, Savage said, and part of the conditions for renewing the lease would be to commit to paying for those improvements. They also said that the landlord wants any improvements to happen at the same time, so putting off any renovations for the gym while the rest of the building moves forward with a revamp wouldn't make sense. Jordan has said before that the basement facility is in need of many improvements, including for 30-year-old plumbing and a poorly ventilated cycling room. Members say they are largely happy with the facility the way it is.
"I think we all need to recognize the fundamentals don't change," Savage said. "I don't want to hold out any false hope here."
Another member asked if they had considered raising Page Mill membership fees to increase revenue or fund renovations a change many members have indicated they would support.
Jordan responded, "It's hard to justify charging the same fees as Equinox to new members" when Page Mill does not offer the same level of amenities.
Members repeatedly asked for a definitive "yes" or "no" to the suggestion of buying the Page Mill gym more time with a short lease extension, with board members, Riggins and Jordan repeatedly responding that they will take all the input from Wednesday's meeting into consideration.
"We haven't even had a chance to process the feedback that was received tonight, so the plan over next several days is to do that ... certainly hear it, absorb it, recognize it," Jordan said after the meeting. "Right now, there's no change to the plan."