By Michael Romain
At Wednesday’s Legal, License and Ordinance Committee (LLOC) meeting, David Parsons, the chief operating officer for the West Cook YMCA, hobbled to the podium on crutches. He was here to present an update on his organization’s progress in operating the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center since last speaking with the Board. Flanking him were Philip Gordon and Stacey Saunders, both YMCA board members with deep Maywood ties.
Ms. Saunders, a former Maywoodian who grew up here, expressed her appreciation for the collaboration between the YMCA and the Village of her upbringing. The partnership would further the international organization’s mission of building community spirit and pride.
David Parsons notified the board that, per its request for longer hours and more programming, the YMCA extended the pool’s hours of operations and had added programming such as morning lap swimming and lessons for toddlers, youth and adults. “In order to keep those hours all summer long,” Parsons said, “we do need everyone to come out to the pool.”
Trustee Ron Rivers, apparently unfazed by the group’s progress report, responded in a tone of disappointment.
“We spoke in April this year,” he said, “and it was vivid in my mind that we [the Board] asked you to look at the hours…I asked for swimming lessons and expanding your programming, period.” Mr. Rivers said that he and Trustee Audrey Jaycox (who wasn’t present due to bereavement) had concerns back in April that Parsons had failed to address before tonight’s LLOC meeting.
“I really feel kind of slighted that you guys didn’t see fit to get back to us to deal with some of our concerns and you’ve moved ahead and put your programs into a flyer and none of our concerns were ever addressed and we never even talked about it, but the pool is already opened,” Rivers said. “I’m perplexed why you didn’t get back to us.”
Mr. Parsons responded that he wasn’t aware that he had to report to each trustee individually and that, moreover, he believed the YMCA was working hard to meet the demands that the Board made in April, such as extending the pool’s hours, beefing up the programming and making the costs more affordable.
“We were asking for the courtesy of knowing what you were going to offer our residents ahead of time,” Rivers said. “As you stated, you’re here today, the pool’s already opened. [But] if we had any concerns can we ask you to retract that? No, the pool’s already opened…”
Although Mr. Rivers’s indignation was apparent, what was less apparent was whether his indignation represented the sentiment of the board as a whole, let alone that of a significant population of Maywoodians. This ambiguity, however, was immediately cleared when Rivers expressed his frustration over a minor detail on one of the flyers the YMCA disseminated about the pool.
“What we ended up seeing,” Rivers said, “was the flyer and it upset a lot of people when it said at the bottom of the flyer that, ‘YMCA members would swim free.’ Why would you have our residents pay when members could swim free?” A loud wave of applause in agreement with Rivers washed over the half-full chamber.
But as anyone with even passing knowledge of health clubs understands, memberships aren’t free. Rivers’s assumption was clearly incorrect, which made his indignation seem contrived and acutely irresponsible. And by this point, one wondered whether or not Mr. Parsons’s crutches were due to his bending over backwards to appease Mr. Rivers’s seemingly persnickety demands.
Instead of clarifying an obvious misconception regarding what Mr. Parsons later said was a minor mistake made in haste, Mr. Rivers instead perpetuated the misinformation. And what’s more, he made it the premise of an inquisition-style public lashing of YMCA officials who seemed genuinely concerned with nothing more than satisfying the very demands that Mr. Rivers claimed went unaddressed.
Mr. Gordon, who lives in Maywood, apologized for what he said was a “slight discourtesy” before apologetically emphasizing the YMCA’s responsiveness to the Trustee’s concerns. “Immediately after you asked for extended hours and lessons…we did get to work on those concerns, but we didn’t communicate properly.”
Gordon also addressed what seemed from the applause to be a widely held assumption. “It’s a misconception when you say that YMCA members swim free, because they’re currently paying for the subsidies that the YMCA is paying out to start and maintain the pool for Maywood,” he said. “Many Maywoodians are YMCA members, I’m one of them, but many of them pay a monthly fee.” The chart below, taken from the West Cook YMCA’s website, details those membership fees.
“Our wording,” Mr. Parsons mentioned, “should have said ‘including membership,’ instead of ‘free.’ We did it in haste. It was a mistake.” But he qualified his contrition. “I don’t understand how there was a misconception. There are about 91 families in Maywood who are currently members of the YMCA.”
According to Mr. Parsons, the West Cook YMCA is operating the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center at a deficit of about $15,000, which is why he and his staff have stressed the importance of attracting both Maywood residents and non-Maywood residents to the pool.
Although there are worries among some Maywoodianas about outside visitors potentially crowding out residential access to the pool, the fact remains that the volume of visitors is essential to the pool’s financial viability. The more outside visitors the pool can attract, the more likely it is to remain open for Maywood residents over the longer term.
When I later talked with Mr. Parsons about Mr. Rivers’s claims, he attributed most of the confusion to procedure. “There’s no problem, it’s just that I’m kind of a detail person, so after the first meeting, when they told us to come back and give us the information, I was waiting for them to give me a detailed date and someone to say, ‘You can come back on this date’” he said.
“It wasn’t a purposeful delay, it took some time to get the schedule and the wording right, so we wanted to make sure we were presenting it well. And we also had to think about how we could get people from outside of Maywood to come and utilize this pool…we apologized and right now, I’m working on an email to send to the Village because I want to consistently update them no what’s going on,” Parsons said.
Aside from the confusion at the LLOC meeting, it appears that the collaboration between Village management, staff and the YMCA has gone rather smoothly. West Cook YMCA President and CEO Jan Pate expressed that her organization’s working relationship with Village Manager William Barlow has been satisfactory. In addition, she said the organization has been in constant communication with Maywood Park District director Al McKinnor.
This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t residents who aren’t concerned about the West Cook YMCA’s presence in Maywood. At the LLOC Meeting, Trustee Michael Rogers said, “Hopefully the lessons are learned, because there is a public perception problem. You need to make sure that you address the fact that you are partnering with us….The public perception is the reality….[you] have to make sure that West Cook means all of those communities and you have to make sure that Maywood is first in that partnership.”
Mr. Rogers’s observations are ironic considering both how hard the YMCA appears to have worked to gain the Village’s trust and the fact that the organization was first invited here by Maywood itself. “The Village approached David [Parsons] and said we have this pool that’s difficult to operate and would the ‘Y’ be interested in doing it,” said Ms. Pate.
On the other hand, however, the current public perception challenge that Trustee Rogers pointed out is one that the West Cook YMCA must have anticipated. “About 15 years ago, we intentionally changed our name from the Oak Park YMCA to the West Cook YMCA,” Ms. Pate said. “We haven’t always done a good job of servicing those areas, but that’s changed.”
Ms. Pate said that the organization has been careful to emphasize its supportive role in the partnership. “Anytime communities see something new and changing, people will have questions. We wanted to make sure people understand that we’re not coming in and taking over. [This is] Maywood’s pool.” (See more of my in-depth interview with Ms. Pate here).VFP