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Op-ed / Lessons the Y learned during shutdown

Published 5:18 pm, Thursday, December 6, 2012
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Now that the Westport Weston Family Y has repaired enough of its flood damage to reopen after a month-long closure, it's worth reviewing what we've learned as a result of Superstorm Sandy and the Y's "lost November."

The Y this week continued to operate with temporary power supplied by two generators. It was likely repairs to the switch gear that controls our electrical systems would be completed by Friday, Dec. 7, at which time we'd be reconnected to CL&P's power grid.

The Y's vintage switch gear, housed in a sub-level 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. The building prohibited the Y from simply replacing 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 the 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," Pat said. "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 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 recreational, fitness and therapeutic swimming.

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 its six-lane pool (water polo, swim team, public swimming) meant that some Water Rats had practices there as 5:15 a.m.

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 the aquatic center at the new Mahakeno facility (construction will start early this winter), currently call for a 25-yard lap pool with eight 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.

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 nonprofit organizations, the Y loses money on its operations and relies on private donations to make ends meet.

One of our primary justifications of the impending building project at Mahackeno -- if not the main reason -- was our Y's pressing need for a new facility that could 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 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.

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

Scott Smith is the director of communications for the Westport Weston Family Y.