LEWISTON — The YWCA of Central Maine is closing.

Leaders of the 130-year-old Lewiston-Auburn institution met Thursday with employees, telling them the debt had grown too big to continue.

“We know we can’t go any further,” Board President Lee Young said. Benefactors helped but never enough. Talks with the Auburn-Lewiston YMCA about a partnership fizzled.

“In the end, the budget couldn’t be balanced,” bookkeeper Tamela Paradis said. Payments on the remaining $560,000 mortgage were too high. Meanwhile, bills to vendors topped $150,000, she said.

“We can’t afford the building,” Paradis said.

The YWCA’s five-member Board of Directors made the decision to close on Monday. On Tuesday, Young and Executive Director Pam Gallant met with department heads to share the decision.

Together, they prepared to disclose the news with their remaining staff and the community. They drafted letters and called meetings. And they took a few final, hopeful messages from possible benefactors.

“The miracle super-donor never happened,” Child Care Director Jen Albert said.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, with unopened boxes of Kleenex on the conference room tables, Young announced the decision to the staff.

“There was some emotion,” said the former Auburn mayor, her eyes still red and puffy an hour later. “We have a lot yet to do.”

As a local institution, the YWCA in Lewiston-Auburn is older than the grand Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul or the Longley Bridge. Some members have been regular users for more than 50 years.

Since 1972, when the current facility opened on East Avenue, it has boasted the only public, regulation-size pool in the cities. The swim teams from Lewiston High School, Edward Little High School and St. Dominic Academy all use the pool. Generations of local young people learned to swim there. Folks with a variety of disabilities use the pool in specialized classes. And people of all ages use the pool during its open swim times.

“It’s the most important building in Lewiston-Auburn,” said Harriet Fakhery, an Auburn woman who uses the pool daily to swim. She also highlighted the child care program. “It helps so many people. There is no replacement.

Fakhery knew that the YWCA had been in a precarious financial place, yet she was surprised when she was given a letter Thursday afternoon, informing her of the closure.

“I was shocked,” she said. “Where are the people going to go? Who will take up the slack?”

The YWCA’s financial woes go back at least a decade.

By 2002, the institution had spent its endowment. It had sold off equipment to help pay its bills.

Two years later, when Paradis began overseeing the books, the YWCA was existing by slashing spending and staff.

“We could eke by with bare bones for quite a while,” she said. Then, the economy turned.

In 2007, when gas and oil prices skyrocketed, so did expenses. The season’s heating oil bill tripled from about $40,000 a year to $120,000. It finally settled at $80,000.

Membership declined. Fewer people bought swim lessons.

“We were on a wing and a prayer,” Gallant said.

As Gallant and Paradis began preparing the upcoming budget, they discovered that the numbers no longer balanced.

The Board of Directors responded by investigating a merger and finding donors. 

At the YMCA in downtown Auburn, they met with Executive Director Brian DuBois and his board’s top leaders. However, that institution did not waver from its mission to create a new campus somewhere in Lewiston-Auburn.

On the donor hunt, there were many phone calls and meetings.

“We got some good responses, but there were not enough,” Young said. “We did a lot of exploring. We spent an awful lot of time.”

And they quietly made provisions in case neither route worked.

“Closure is always sitting there under the radar,” Gallant said.

They created an escrow account to hold onto membership and lesson money, in case a portion had to be refunded.

They alerted vendors and talked with their mortgage holder, People’s United Bank. They also decided to make sure that every employee was paid, including their earned-but-unused vacation time.

“It’s a sad thing, but we are doing it ethically,” Young said.

Plans call for the regular pool hours to end on Friday, with a few contractual pool hours to extend into next week. The child care center will close on Sept. 3.

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