A part of Baton Rouge for over a century, the YMCA of the Capital area earlier this year was considering opening two to four new branches. 

Those plans were scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now facing a potential $1 million loss this year, the nonprofit has temporarily closed one of its nine branches and is planning to close another one permanently.

"We've had to make some tough decisions, in the overall best interests of our members and so we can be here at least another 100 years," said Chris Spencer, board chairman for the Capital Area YMCA, which had its start in 1917.

Membership numbers at the YMCA have dropped and, in a secondary blow, the branches haven't been able to offer their traditional revenue-producing programs, such as after-school care and youth sports programs, in the pileup of closures, school disruptions and financial hardships in the wake of the pandemic.

Since its May 18 reopening under Phase 1 stipulations, the YMCA has lost more than 2,000 memberships, from close to 9,000 before the pandemic to a little over 6,600 today, said Christian Engle, president and CEO of the nonprofit.

A membership unit can be for a family or an individual, with membership costs running about $50 per month for an individual and about $80 per month for a family.

"Right now, we're projecting ending 2020 with a million dollar loss," Engle said. "We're having to make decisions based on what we can do economically." 

The Baton Rouge area YMCA typically operates with a break-even budget of between $9 million and $10 million a year, he said. 

The situation for the organization is being mirrored across the country, said Ryan O’Malley, director of public relations for YMCA USA, headquartered in Chicago.

"Overall, Ys operate on very narrow 2% to 3% margins and most don’t have cash on hand to withstand a significant emergency or natural disaster, let alone something catastrophic and long-lasting like this pandemic," O'Malley said.

"Nationwide, the Y overall saw revenue losses upwards of $800 million in April and May combined," he said. "Thankfully, facilities have begun to reopen, child care is expanding to the broader population and many day camps are operating."  

Capital Area YMCA administrators and board members have arrived at a two-part solution to the challenges of the pandemic.

One part of it is the temporary closure of the Baranco-Clark YMCA, which has been operating on Thomas H. Delpit Drive for close to 50 years.

Each branch of the Y has its own board of directors and the one at Baranco-Clark will be "working on what services that community needs," Engle said.

"Use of that facility has been low for awhile," he said. "If it reopens depends on the community and the community support of the Y."

Temporarily closing the Baranco-Clark branch "was just basic finances, turning the lights off," Engle said.

The YMCA also plans to close its Southside branch on Perkins Road, where group exercise classes will continue to be held for another four to six months, until the nearby Paula G. Manship YMCA off Perkins, about a mile from Southside, is renovated and interior spaces rearranged. 

The renovations had already been planned but are being pushed ahead now, Engle said.

The proximity of the two branches made the closing of Southside, the older of the two facilities, an obvious solution in light of the current economic picture, he said. The Southside building will likely be sold after its closure, Engle said.

Sondra Pilgreen, who served as chair of the Southside board, now disbanded, said, "Southside was an old facility that was loved." 

Before the YMCA purchased the building and opened it as a branch in 1998, the facility had served as a fitness center for other owners for many years, she said, and "repairs had been done across the years." 

Its indoor pool, for instance, was closed last year, due to repair challenges to meet new regulations, she said; its outdoor pool was closed many years ago for maintenance and repair reasons. 

Southside's was the YMCA's second indoor pool to close last year. The one at the C.B. Pennington Jr. branch on Old Hammond also closed, after membership numbers there failed to return to earlier levels after the flood of 2016. 

"Do you put the money in an old facility?" Pilgreen said. "Personally we're all very disappointed. We've thought of many an alternative to raise money to keep the Y open but it wouldn't be enough."

The repair and maintenance issues at Southside had been "talked about for some years before," she said. "The coronavirus basically made some of the decisions for us."

"I'm sticking with the Y" though, she said. "I'm going to find my Y 'family' and meet them at different locations."


Email Ellyn Couvillion at ecouvillion@theadvocate.com.