Norwalk Y’s closing looming large on money-conscious Council’s mind

Norwalk Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asks questions of a speaker at last week’s planning committee meeting.

By Nancy Guenther Chapman

NORWALK, Conn. – The imminent closing of Norwalk’s YMCA may have an effect on other community groups getting funds from Norwalk in the future.

Common Council member Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) recommended at last week’s planning committee meeting that the city turn a skeptical eye to large organizations looking for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) in the future, given that the Y announced that it was closing in “60 days, shut the door, not much notice.” Hempstead’s concern hit a nerve, prompting two council members to worry that start-ups might be excluded from grant money, as they don’t have a financial history.

“Is there a way that we can do an analysis or investigation of certain organizations that may not be financially stable?” Hempstead asked. … I know sometimes over the years we have invested money, like at the YMCA, to help them out with programs because we’re trying to help those in need. I guess their financial problems seemed to be a lot longer term than most of us thought they were.”

“I don’t doubt your intentions,” said David Watts (D-District A.) “I would be concerned, I have to push back a little – what would be the mechanism be for a new program getting started in urban areas? Last year, I was disappointed in some of the programs I thought should qualify, didn’t qualify.”

MaryGrace Weber, urban planner for Norwalk Redevelopment Agency, said two grants had been given to the Y this year. As the programs the grants were targeted for had not started, the money would be returned.

Redevelopment Executive Director Tim Sheehan said currently, the organization pays close attention to how the grant money is spent. Sheehan and Weber agreed that review of the financial status of the organization seeking the grant is in order.

Carvin Hilliard (D-District B) agreed with Watts. “I know several organizations, because this one organization went broke, belly up, whatever you want to call it, we can’t make dramatic changes just because of that one organization,” he said. “I think we should proceed with caution but I’m concerned because that can be used as a reason not to help organizations that’s in the inner city, which the program is designed for, really.”

“None of the organizations that I was familiar with in South Norwalk or central Norwalk received the money,” Watts said.

David McCarthy (R-District E) thought their comments were apt. “Hopefully we’re not looking to review financials to make a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “We want to make sure the organization is able to implement the grant money as it is given. We don’t want to see this as a repeat of us putting money out and having it return because the organization couldn’t effectively use it for whatever reason.”

Hempstead said he had been around long enough to know that CDBG grants are meant for start-ups, although larger organizations, such as the Norwalk Housing Authority, return year after year for new projects. Start-ups are a good thing, he said, explaining, “We want to make sure somebody isn’t so under water that we’re taking federal funding and putting it into a building that’s going to go under six months from now.”

Watts said he is hoping the CDBG process goes differently this year, as anti-gang initiatives are increasingly important.

“Now with the Y closed, I’m more concerned,” he said. “More children and youth don’t have somewhere to go.”


2 responses to “Norwalk Y’s closing looming large on money-conscious Council’s mind”

  1. Mike Mushak

    Everything is connected in a city, like a giant organism with complex functions, much like a human body. You can’t remove a limb and expect the rest of the body to perform the same way. I have to get philosophical here, because it seems no one in city hall undertstands basic urban design and how Norwalk functions. By intentionally building the city for cars and trucks only and without dedicated bike lanes (sharrows are a dangerous cop-out) and frequent and numerous crosswalks and well-maintained wide sidewalks, which is what the mayor and the DPW are actively doing with Dave McCarthy’s full and unquestioning support from the Council, and in complete ignorance and rejection of numerous professional studies that we paid for and tell us we need bike lanes, we are creating a dead city with millions of taxpayer dollars by eliminating any future chance we will have a vibrant downtown again. It borders on criminal.

    How does that relate to the Y closing? Many low income folks do not own cars, especially teenagers and young folks who are struggling to make ends meet and whose families are not the typical suburban clan with 2 or 3 cars. The Y’s membership was majority low-income and minority, and these folks had to struggle to get to the Y using infrequent buses, or walking, or relying on friends or family for rides. If we had bike lanes built on West Ave., we could have encouraged South Norwalk’s large low income population to get to the Y a lot easier. Instead, we built West Ave in front of 95/7 with 7 lanes of traffic and no bike lanes, narrowed the sidewalks under the 95 bridge, and actually blocked some new sidewalks with giant pole bases for the new traffic lights, creating an obsolete 1970’s style inhospitable thoroughfare for bikes and pedestrians. And just recently, this same crowd rejected a professional study and wants to do the same thing with rest of West Ave between the Y and Wall Street. It didn’t help the Y any to discourage its membership from using alternative transportation to get to it. Perhaps a minor effect on its survival, but still it may have had an effect. We need top-down change to wake this city up and get good urban design like the experts are all telling us we need, and not hobbled together design by committee with the anti-urban folks with no viision holding all the cards.

  2. Dorothy Mobilia

    I agree with Mike that “We need top-down change to wake this city up and get good urban design,” but not for the limited reasons Mike has suggested. The Y is a point in case. The Y was never seen as a minority-only destination, but reached out to the entire community. Many people, my family included for years, went to the Y as a central and convenient recreational and health center because a Y can offer what spas cannot. It was a full-family center, and great for commuters for its hours and location. The very nature of its location and existence made it a place where race, nationality or economic level did not count as we enjoyed yoga, spinning, basketball, swimming and racquet ball. The building itself had issues dating from when it also was a residence and it never had the money to fully evolve as other Ys have. If I had my wish, the Y would live again, at the same location to fully serve the central Norwalk location.

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