Town exploring further partnership with Berkshire Family YMCA

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board is set to consider extending its partnership to a three-year agreement with the Berkshire Family YMCA, which began operating the Bennington Recreation Center earlier this year.

At its meeting Monday, the board asked the town to work with YMCA partners to come up with a specific proposal for the Y and the town to continue working together, said Don Campbell, chairman of the Select Board. The goal is to consider that proposal in October, in time for budget season, he said.

At that meeting, Jessie Rumlow, interim director of the Bennington Recreation Center and interim CEO of the Y, presented an outline of an idea for how the partnership could continue.

"It's been eight months, and I think that we've learned a lot over the eight months, but we've also learned that we don't have all the answers yet," she said. "We think that you need more time than a year."

Rumlow said she presented the idea of a three-year agreement, to begin in January 2020, where the Y would oversee programming, and the town would continue to own and maintain the rec center and have authority over its rates.

Ownership of the center and authority over rates have been "sticking points" in the community, Rumlow said.

"We can't say this enough, but really importantly, the town continues to own the property, and the town continues to set the fees," Campell said.

The town's current agreement with the Y was set at a Nov. 26, 2018 Select Board meeting, where members unanimously approved a management agreement that placed Rumlow in the position of interim director of the center and allows one year for the two parties to determine whether to move forward with the partnership.

Stuart Hurd, town manager, previously described 2019 as a "transition year" in the agreement, which is effective Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019.

"I think it's an excellent idea," he said of continuing the relationship with the Y. "I think it's working well."

Hurd said he, along with Community Development Director Shannon Barsotti and Planning Director Dan Monks, would be involved in crafting the proposal with the Y. The Select Board would decide whether to sign on to any proposal.

The administrative portion of the rec center budget is $290,000; the town taxpayers subsidize its operation, and the center also charges fees. If the budget under the proposal is $290,000 or less, it would most likely be affordable to the town, Hurd said.

"I suspect that it will be less than that," he said. "If we're looking to form an active and mutually beneficial partnership, then I expect they will sharpen the pencil and provide us with a management agreement and a budget that is clearly beneficial to the community itself, while also benefiting the Y."

Hurd said the town would be involved in those discussions.

Based on currently available information, it looks like a continued partnership would be positive for both Y and the town, Rumlow said.

Campbell said he is impressed with the Y's operation of the rec center. The kind of programming and efficiency of use of the center have "vastly" increased under the Y, he said.

"We've been exploring the idea of a productive partnership," he said. "To all signs, this partnership is more productive than we even dreamed."

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The Y has tremendous depth and years of experience in providing recreation, he said.

"So far, we're very impressed with what we've seen happening there," he said.

Rumlow said the Y has developed programming, like aqua tai chi and an expanded water aerobics class, and has been increasing participation in its programming.

Any potential formal proposal for continuing the relationship with the Y will have "a lot of budget implications," Campbell said.

"And I think we need to figure out what those are," he said.

The town wants to see rates to use the center stay down, but officials also want to see more and better programming.

"It's a little bit of a triangular thing, and it's difficult," Campbell said. "We want to offer more and better program[s], we want to not spend taxpayer money, but we want to try to not raise rates. It's a difficult thing to balance out."

It's work in progress, but initial signs are very positive, he said.

The use of the rec center is increasing, along with programmatic opportunities.

"It's really good for Bennington to be more active, to be more involved in exercise and recreation," he said.

Campbell said those closest to the partnership between the town and the Y felt there was a "high likelihood" that it would work out, but they weren't sure.

"In this particular situation, it seems to be a really good partnership," he said. "[Rumlow] has worked hard to be highly communicative and very inclusive."

The Y brings not only elevated professionalism, but access to various grants and professionals around the country, to the partnership, he said.

"There's a gap between a good idea and a specific proposal, and that's what we're trying to close," he said.

Campbell said there's a "great fear of change" around this issue for some people in the community.

"I feel like it's important for our community to know that the select board is sensitive to that, and we are trying very hard to keep the good of what we already have and to add to that some really great new opportunities for our community," he said. "But we're not losing sight of the fact that what we have is wonderful, and it means a lot to a lot of people."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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