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Supporters optimistic they can keep Y open

Lake County Family YMCA plans close Waukegan branch Oct. 31 as well as VernHills branch. | File photo

Lake County Family YMCA plans to close the Waukegan branch on Oct. 31, as well as the Vernon Hills branch. | File photo

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Save the Y

A Save the Y meeting will be held Friday, Nov. 2, at Waukegan Township’s Park Place, 414 S. Lewis Ave. For more information on the campaign or to make a donation, call Diane Aidem at (847) 996-6952 or visit

Updated: December 26, 2012 1:25AM

WAUKEGAN — Despite mixed signals during Friday’s Save the Y meeting, members and employees of the Lake County Family YMCA continue to work to galvanize support to keep the 100-year-old agency in Waukegan from shuttering on Oct. 31.

“We’re meeting literally every day to discuss how to keep the Y open for the long-term,” said interim CEO Hal Katz. “We’re going to keep working until the last minute on Oct. 31. I am optimistic.”

But Waukegan Mayor Robert Sabonjian said options are slim and time is running short. He reported that a professional fund-raiser who specializes in not-for-profits advised that “there’s just not enough time to structure something.”

“Maybe if we had a year to solve this,” Sabonjian said. “Changing the business model in this timeframe is going to be impossible.”

The Y, which also operates a facility and programs in Vernon Hills, announced Sept. 28 that it could no longer sustain operations due to flagging membership and mounting debt. It owes the Royal Bank of Scotland an estimated $6 million.

“We’re in default,” Katz said. “The bank is working with us. They’re aware of the outcry of support and are sympathetic. But it’s up to the board to present options.”

Members, who are still chafing at the one-month closure notice, and staff are organizing committees and making calls to foundations and other potential contributors. A possible lease of the Waukegan Y’s indoor pool — some members want the park district to take it over — or other parts of the facility is being explored.

While the Save the Y effort has raised an estimated $26,000 — $1,000 in donations made on Friday included $250 each from Democratic candidates Brad Schneider and Chris Kennedy — Sabonjian reported a lack of support from larger corporations in Waukegan, the City Council and the Lake County Board.

Sabonjian acknowledged that the Y has faced stiff competition from the Waukegan Park District’s Hinkston Park Fieldhouse and fitness businesses that charge low rates.

“This isn’t a decision the Y has made,” Sabonjian said, alluding to the closure. “It’s a decision the market made.”

But Y defenders point to the communal importance of the agency where people from different backgrounds can mingle, old people can exercise at their own pace, and kids stay safe, have fun, make new friends and learn to swim. The Y also offers discounted memberships for seniors, youth, single parents and low-income families.

“I pray the community realizes what they’re losing,” said member Rhonda Reyes, who said her young daughter handed over her wallet containing $4.76 with the direction: “Give this to the Y, mom.’”

“We understand the love and need for this institution,” Katz said.

Negotiations continue between the Y and the village of Vernon Hills, which submitted a letter of interest to purchase the Central Lake facility for $1.4 million. The Y is holding out for a better offer and if it gets one, will keep operating there, according to Katz, until the transaction is finalized.

If the Y does close, an estimated 7,000 members will have to move on and 132 employees will be looking for work. Plans are in the works for a giant Halloween open house on Oct. 31, a day that will either bring a reprieve or an ending.

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