AUBURN — The Auburn-Lewiston YMCA is taking a leap of faith.
Its first splash came on Sept. 14, when the century-old institution bought a wide, 93-acre tract of woods and fields overlooking the Androscoggin River. Two weeks later, leaders announced plans to build a complex on the property, with a pool, child-care facilities, fitness areas, a day camp and far more parking than its aging center in Auburn's downtown.
The cost: $15 million.
How much money have they raised so far?
"Very little," said YMCA Executive Director Brian DuBois.
Plans call for a feasibility study — meant to peek into the wallets of likely donors — but it hasn't yet been commissioned and leaders expect a poor forecast.
"We're not optimistic that it's going to come back terribly favorable," DuBois said. The economy is tough and Lewiston-Auburn people are buying few luxuries.
But the generosity of local people and their commitment to the YMCA cannot be measured on a study's spreadsheet or charted on a computer slide, he said.
People will donate, DuBois insisted.
The alternative is the slow death of an institution that survived the Great Depression, urban renewal and the Village People.
The YMCA must change, board member Stephan Myers said.
"Yes, it is a leap of faith," Myers said. "But, gosh, if you don't make a leap, you'll never make it."
Struggling and survival
Talk of the YMCA's squeezed quarters has been going on for decades.
Unearthed records of a 1924 board meeting described complaints of how the grand, brick building at the corner of Hampshire and Turner streets was already filled to capacity.
At the time, it was only two years old.
In the 1970s, the Y's leaders commissioned a study, which found little community support for costly changes. A decade later, the institution came perilously close to closure. There were struggles to meet payroll and debt mounted.
"There was not much money in the checkbook," Myers said.
They tightened their spending and built their endowment.
Currently, the YMCA has about 2,200 members, employs a staff of about 100 and has an annual budget of more than $2 million.
Monthly membership dues — $35 for adults and $52.50 for families — account for only 20 percent of the YMCA's annual revenue, DuBois said. Most of the bills and salaries (about half are part-timers) are paid by contributions, fees on specific programs and offerings, and child-care services.
The YMCA figures it reaches about 2.2 percent of local households. When compared to other YMCAs, the number is small. It ought to be closer to 5.7 percent, DuBois said as he walked the Y's halls recently.
"We do the best we can, but we've gotten old," he said, adding that he believes the facility's limitations are a major reason for the lower number.
The four-story building — which has three stories above ground and one below — seems tired compared to some Maine cities' more modern facilities with their sunlit exercise areas, gymnasiums and wide pools.
The Auburn Y's pool is in the basement. It's only three lanes wide and the room feels almost cave-like, as if its water comes from an underground aquifer.
Building systems such as heating and plumbing are inefficient. Exercise rooms are overstuffed with machines and the structure's only elevator, made for freight rather than people, stopped working decades ago, DuBois said.
And the parking areas are skimpy.
The site has six spaces of on-street parking in front of its main entrance on Turner Street and a few others along one side and the rear. They fill quickly during peak hours. More parking is available farther away, across busy Turner Street.
There is little room for improvement at the site, which has streets on three sides and the Androscoggin County Courthouse on the fourth.
"You can't expand the pool," DuBois said. "You can't expand the gymnasium. We can invest millions of dollars in our current location and end up being worse off because we still haven't solved the parking riddle."
There is a solution, he said.
Analysts have told the YMCA's board that a modern complex with plenty of parking could quadruple membership.
"What we're talking about is having membership be the backbone of our organization," he said.
That's the hook on which all of the Y's plans now hang.
Mapping out the next century
The board of directors has been serious about building a new complex for more than two years, since former director Jim Lawler retired and the search began for a new administrator.
They hired DuBois, an Auburn native who grew up attending the Y in the 1980s, in part because they hoped he would help lead them through fundraising and construction.
And they created a Facilities Committee to begin deciding what a new YMCA should look like and where it ought to be located. They've been examining area sites for more than a year.
The group decided it wanted at least 12 acres. Members only looked at properties in Lewiston and Auburn and gave preferences to sites with easy access to both cities, said Alan Hahnel, who chairs the committee.
Among the locations examined was the former Great Falls School in Auburn, a wooded area near Walmart in Auburn, a lot near Marden's in Lewiston and the site of Bates Mill No. 5 in downtown Lewiston.
Most locations, including the school and the mill site, were deemed too small. YMCA leaders worried that the mill site would be too politically divisive. Other sites had accessibility issues. Some were too pricey.
Then, the 93-acre site in Auburn surfaced.
The land behind Kmart is mostly undeveloped. It includes views of the Androscoggin River and a brook that leads directly into the river. It is versatile enough to host everything the board considered.
"We took the time to look, found the ideal piece of property and moved on it," Hahnel said.
YMCA leaders declined to say how much they paid for the land, saying only that they paid less than its city-appraised value of $680,900.
So far, plans for the site are sketchy.
Among the certainties are a pool, a gym, various cardio and weight rooms, parking and at least one building for the Y's day camp, Camp Connor. The camp is now located in Poland, but its long-term lease on Lower Range Pond is ending.
When drawings were unveiled Sept. 29, they included spaces for two pools, ball fields, an ice rink and various other amenities. Those are from a sort of wish list.
The $15 million fundraising goal includes money for neither rinks nor athletic fields, Hahnel said.
They were included in the drawings as a way of highlighting what leaders hope to eventually accomplish. There may be several construction phases. And there might be donors willing to make the investments needed to build a rink or indoor tennis courts or ball fields.
"A lot of people say the community of Lewiston-Auburn doesn't have that money," Hahnel said. "Maybe it does."
If you shoot too low, you get low, he said,
Looking for convenience
The people who use the YMCA — those looking for a workout, kids learning to swim and parents seeking child care — generally seem to like the plans.
The Sun Journal talked with 20 people who regularly attend the YMCA. Only one, a mother who lives on Hampshire Street, criticized the plan.
Others liked the chance to park with ease, swim in a larger pool or work out in more pleasant surroundings.
"I like the facility, but if they can improve and get bigger, that's even better," said Janice Callahan of Auburn.
"It sounds great," said Dave Perreault of Lewiston. The 20-year veteran of the Y has his own wish list, though.
"Hopefully, they'll have a track," he said. (DuBois also hopes the new Y will feature an indoor track that would encircle the gymnasium.)
Others, including some who commute to the YMCA from as far as Poland and Oxford, said it would make little difference to them.
"I'm for it," said Brian Martin of Livermore. "It's closer to me and less hassle than going downtown."
However, Jennifer Jacobson of Auburn worried about how she would manage child care for her daughter before and after school when the facility moves to its new location 2 miles away.
"I think it's going to be great for the Y itself, but I think it's going to put a lot of people out," said Jacobson, who lives around the corner from the YMCA.
The distance isn't as far as it seems, DuBois said. Most people seem to think the new site is at least 3 miles away. DuBois measured the distance at 1.9 miles. A Sun Journal vehicle measured it at an even 2 miles.
Jacobson, who doesn't own a vehicle, wonders who will care for her daughter when the Y moves.
"It's going to be a huge inconvenience," Jacobson said. "It's going to rain down on my world."
Where the city fits in
Others worry about what it might mean for Auburn.
Jonathan LaBonte, the only candidate on the city's November ballot for mayor, said he worries that elected leaders have not been part of the planning process. None was asked to attend a September news conference that also included YMCA staff, volunteers and a number of potential donors.
"The Y needs the city, just like the city needs the Y," LaBonte said. "We should look at the community's overall need for recreational facilities."
LaBonte cited the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Auburn Public Library as an example of what can be done with both private and public support.
DuBois said he plans to gather area leaders for an event next spring, but LaBonte wants discussion to begin sooner.
The likely mayor plans to call for a meeting between the YMCA and the City Council soon after he's inaugurated in January.
"It's worth investigating," he said.
Former Auburn Mayor Lee Young said she was disappointed by the move, but she understands it.
In the late 1990s, Young led the city's effort to keep institutions in the downtown. She also serves as president of the YWCA of Central Maine in Lewiston.
"It was pretty much inevitable when you look at that building," she said.
The aging structure and the YMCA's not-so-secret plan to find a new home were on Young's mind when she and other leaders of the YWCA met with DuBois and members of his board last year.
At the time, the YWCA was weighed down with debt and near closure. The women offered a plan to merge the two agencies — something the Ys in Bangor have done — but they were turned down.
"We could not get involved with their organization because of the debt load," DuBois said. "That doesn't mean we wouldn't like to partner with them."
The only other YWCA in Maine is in Bar Harbor, which also has a YMCA.
Since last year's trouble, Lewiston's YWCA has reorganized and raised about $600,000 to ease its debt problem.
This spring, the two groups met and talked about working together, but nothing was decided upon.
Young said she wished the YMCA luck. She also figured that its mostly male leadership will have an easier time than the YWCA in reaching local business leaders, most of whom are men.
"It's going to be a big challenge for them to be able to raise that kind of money," Young said. "But also, I live in the world of reality. I'm a woman who has raised money for various things over my lifetime. I know it's going to be easier for them, in the fact that they're going to have a lot of men out in the community going from business to business. That makes the solicitation process a little bit easier."
Romance of the Y
DuBois and other YMCA leaders will miss the old building at 62 Turner St., with its brick and ivy facade.
The executive director was a boy when he started going there, entering on the right-hand door, because the left was for the men, In those days, the main floor had a pool table, a three-lane bowling alley and dozens of rooms upstairs for short-term housing for men.
"There's a romance to it," DuBois said. "It was a different community, though."
The pool tables and bowling alley have been replaced by treadmills, elliptical machines and classes in pilates. In 1995, the last of the upstairs rooms for men that were once a staple of all Ys were removed to make room for after-school programs and infant care.
Though some neighbors use the Auburn YMCA, they are a shrinking minority.
DuBois sees few kids ride their bikes in as he once did.
"We used to have four bike racks in our alley," he said. "We just removed the last one because nobody uses it."
Board member Myers, who lives nearby and often cycles to work and the YMCA, said he will lose convenience when the new facility opens in a few years. But he understands the need for such changes, particularly for parking.
"In this day and age — until we're all riding around on little Segways — cars are needed," Myers said. "And I'll ride my bike out to the new place."