Tuscaloosa leaders vote to bailout YMCA, save Barnes branch
A unanimous City Council has voted to give the Tuscaloosa YMCA a new lease on life while committing to the development of a new YMCA facility in west Tuscaloosa.
This decision, made 6-0 by the council – Councilman Eddie Pugh was absent – includes the purchase of both the YMCA’s new downtown facility as well as the Benjamin Barnes branch in west Tuscaloosa for $1.57 million.
In exchange for taking on the YMCA’s debt that was incurred in constructing the downtown facility in 2016, the YMCA’s board of directors will lease back usage of these facilities for $12 a year – $1 per month – and commit to redirecting dollars that previously went to the debt payment toward a series of performance measures, including the return and expansion of youth programming to the Benjamin Barnes service area in west Tuscaloosa.
They also agreed to develop family support programming in conjunction with City Hall and provide healthy living programs for all residents at its Downtown Family YMCA.
The agreement gives the city ownership of the two facilities, recently appraised together at almost $2.25 million, while dividing maintenance and upkeep responsibilities between the YMCA and taxpayers.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said Jeff Knox, CEO of YMCA Tuscaloosa, “and I’m looking forward to what the future’s going to bring.”
But the vote, made Tuesday, faced vocal opposition from Black constituents and residents of west Tuscaloosa who believed the agreement between City Hall and the YMCA did enough to protect the future of the Barnes branch.
While part of the overall agreement includes the YMCA steering about half of the $9,800 or so monthly debt payment that now goes toward paying off the new YMCA facility toward a renovated – and, eventually, a brand-new – Benjamin Barnes branch of the YMCA on 18th Street, some residents didn’t feel the commitment went far enough.
“I think personally, it’s OK to bail out the indebtedness of the Y,” said Rodney Pelt Sr., founder and CEO of Mind Changers Inc. and president of the 100 Black Men of West Alabama Inc. “I don’t think it’s OK to give a standard memorandum of understanding where it gives no guarantees to a new structure in a community that means so much to not only west Tuscaloosa and West Alabama but to Tuscaloosa as a whole.
“I think it’s vitally important that you look in the mirror, City Council and mayor, and ask yourself are you doing what’s right by the residents of Tuscaloosa, especially west Tuscaloosa.”
Named for Tuscaloosa educator Benjamin H. Barnes, who learned under Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute before returning to Tuscaloosa and taking a job as a teacher in the Tuscaloosa City Schools system, this facility has been a mainstay of the west Tuscaloosa community for more than 60 years.
Whereas the downtown facility mainly caters to exercise enthusiasts and offers childcare services while parents get in a work out, the Benjamin Barnes branch is primarily a childcare and family services center serving working-class and single-parent households in west Tuscaloosa.
“We want a new Barnes branch – state of the art,” said Tuscaloosa resident Jeffery D. Webb. “We believe that, after all this legacy that has taken place, let’s preserve and protect the legacy of the Benjamin Barnes branch on the west side for our community.
“Let’s not let that legacy die in bureaucracy and things that does not matter in serving those kids in the west side of Tuscaloosa.”
All but four of the 16 residents who spoke up prior to the City Council’s vote offered similar sentiments, asking the council members to delay their vote until a stronger guarantee for a new Barnes branch could be crafted.
But guarantees were difficult to craft into legislation, officials said.
Among them was District 2 Councilor Raevan Howard, who made an impassioned speech on the importance of acting now to save an organization in order to provide a chance for a future Barnes branch.
“it seems like ‘guarantee’ is the word of the hour tonight,” Howard said. “I have no guarantees, and I can’t give something to you that I don’t have. …
“But even in the midst of a pandemic, children have been limited to so much access to what they enjoy and now we have an opportunity where we can free up money to get programming and now we’re going to deny our community of that opportunity? If we want to do something, then we need to do it and make it happen.”
At her recommendation, the City Council agreed to alter the memorandum of understanding with the YMCA to require no new additions or construction will be made at the downtown YMCA facility until a new Benjamin Barnes branch is 75% complete.
YMCA officials agreed to this change as well as a new capital campaign to begin generating money for a new Barnes branch.
“The whole board is absolutely committed to a new Barnes, but Step 1 in that is getting this sword off our neck with this debt,” said Tim Parker, chairman of the board for Parker Towing and vice-chairman of the YMCA board of directors. “We can’t undo the mistakes that have been made in the past, but we’re moving in the right direction and I think this is a very important step tonight.”
Parker was joined by Tuscaloosa County Circuit Court Judge John England, a former Tuscaloosa City Councilman who has served on the advisory committee of the Benjamin Barnes branch since the 1970s.
“We need to have people who are committed,” England said. “This is not about trying to get the city to guarantee it’s going to build a Barnes for an amount that nobody knows what it’s going to be. The vote today is to provide funds … to make sure we can continue the programs and, not just think about it, but commit to a capital campaign to build that Y.”
Preserving both the downtown YMCA as well as the future of the Benjamin Barnes branch is what appeared to garner the support of the City Council, despite using proceeds from an unused line of credit to fund the purchase.
“There is a large contingent of Tuscaloosans who’ve seen the progress the YMCA has made over the generations in shaping young people, and this is a step towards keeping that tradition alive and expanding it,” said District 4 Councilman Lee Busby, who led the council’s negotiation on the matter. “We’ve got kids involved in shooting each other. This won’t be a panacea and magically stop that, but it will bring another force into play – or, I should say, back into play – at giving the youth of this city an alternative, a productive place to go that’s safe and clean and can be mentored by people that are teaching them the right things.”
Reach Jason Morton at email@example.com.