Rally Planned in East Hampton Targets YMCA RECenter

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By Kathryn G. Menu

The East End New Leaders have organized a rally at East Hampton Town Hall on Thursday to protest what the group says is a lack of recreational space for children and teens in the face of a rising drug-abuse crisis. Specifically, the group is targeting the town’s contract with YMCA of Long Island, which has operated the East Hampton YMCA RECenter on Gingerbread Lane in East Hampton Village since 2000.

According to Walker Bragman, the president of East End New Leaders, the rally will begin at 6 p.m. in the lobby of Town Hall, before the East Hampton Town Board’s 6:30 p.m. meeting, and will continue during that session.

On Wednesday, Mr. Bragman said the organization, which recently received non-profit status, hopes to convince the town board to not renew its contract with the YMCA when it ends in December 2018. Instead, Mr. Bragman’s group is advocating the town run its own recreational facility with a focus on providing a place for what he called “unstructured free play” in addition to youth programming. He was also critical of programming at the RECenter, which he said serves largely as a gym for adults instead of space for children and teens.

Mr. Bragman said the New Leaders have been advocating for a shift in the RECenter’s priorities since the group was founded in 2015. He said the decision to revive the effort came after the group’s pleas for more space for children and teen programming fell on deaf ears.

“Obviously, when we picked this issue, we did not believe it was controversial,” he said on Wednesday. “The town is paying them $590,000 a year to run a gym for adults out of a rec center for kids … The community is not getting what was originally intended for that space.”

Mr. Bragman said in January of last year, after meeting with the RECenter’s executive director, Glenn Vickers, he was hopeful the facility was committed to developing a teen center, which he said was a critical need in town.

“But that center never really manifested,” he said. Mr. Bragman said that instead there is a small space in the mezzanine with table tennis, a Foosball table, some computers and a table. “It’s an island in the gym for kids whose parents are working out,” he said.

The town does in fact pay the YMCA $590,000 annually to operate the RECenter, down from $710,000 when it first entered into a license agreement with the non-profit to operate the facility in 2000. The town is also responsible for all capital improvements, said Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez, the liaison to the RECenter. It is in the midst of a $950,000 project to replace the center’s heating and air conditioning system, and eroded steel columns in the aquatics center. Any surplus the RECenter has at the end of the year is transferred to the town and placed in a capital reserve account for improvements to the facility.

Both Ms. Burke-Gonzalez and Mr. Vickers defended programming at the RECenter, noting it serves a diverse East Hampton Town population, with a membership of 4,307 that ranges in age from 6 months to 94. All town residents under the age of 18 are eligible for free membership.

“The membership of the YMCA represents a real cross-section of our community,” said Ms. Burke-Gonzalez, who praised the aquatics program, summer camp offerings, drop-in hours for teens, and its Leaders & Lemonade program, which partners children and teens with volunteers and business leaders to promote youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

“From my perspective, it is a tremendous asset for our community,” she continued. “Is there room for improvement? There is always room for improvement, but I joined at the end of October and now I really see how much use this facility gets from a number of different groups in our community. It is really a broad spectrum.”

“Come here consistently after 3 p.m. and we are busy with youth and family programming,” said Mr. Vickers on Wednesday.

He said programming included one-on-one classes, and offerings for small and larger groups.

“We use our entire facility for programming for both youth and adults,” said. Mr. Vickers, noting the RECenter also hosts after-school programming at local schools focused on teaching children about health and nutrition, science and the arts.

“We are successful at being busy 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said.

“We have hired a number of Millennial staff,” added Mr. Vickers. “A lot of the young people in this community are employees of the Y.”

In terms of when the town would begin negotiating the extension of its contract with the YMCA, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said, “it’s premature.”

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