This week we asked Stephen Butz, President and CEO, YMCA of Greater Vancouver, to participate in an in-depth interview with Abbotsford Today about the YMCA’s proposed facility in Abbotsford.
Mr. Butz was kind enough to agree. We have published the questions and answers below verbatim.
Abbotsford Today: What made the YMCA decide Abbotsford would be a good fit for your business model?
Stephen Butz: Our interest in Abbotsford is about our mission, not our business model. For the last 127 years, the YMCA has been serving communities throughout Vancouver as a leading not-for-profit charity. For generations, the heart of that work has focused on communities that need support in raising healthy children and families so the whole community can be strong. The facilities, programs, and services offered by the Y are simply tools to achieve this purpose. We have figured out how to operate these facilities in a prudent, sustainable fashion, and that is why government, community organizations, countless donors and municipalities across Canada have partnered with us. The days are over when any one of us can address the complex set of challenges facing a community like Abbotsford. Rather, we are putting our shared capacity to work together on behalf of communities to work. That is why we want to be here.
In fact, our relationship with Abbotsford didn’t start with us. Back in 2010, we were invited by the City to consider bringing a new YMCA to your community. That led to a disciplined process to understand what would need to be true in support of a new YMCA. We spent two years finding these answers, much of which is now been presented to Council and in the public domain.
Why were we asked? Likely the same reason every growing community starts looking for new ways to deliver on important community needs in a cost effective way. Abbotsford is projected to grow to 156,160 by 2016. By 2036, you’ll add another 70,400 more people to a total of 208,400 (City of Abbotsford Summary Demographic Profile, Abbotsford.ca, p. 4).
Why do we want to be here? Because building strong kids and strong families is what we do.
AT: Were you prepared for the volume of objections and the depth of the anger you are running into at this stage of the discussions?
SB: The best community decisions are made when everyone has a voice, so we welcome these discussions and invite people to participate in the conversation. We all know there are few, if any, communities in Canada that has enough resources to meet all their needs. We also know that a lot of people have a different view of which needs are most important. From the very beginning of this process, we have stated that both the City and the Y are entitled to make their own decisions. It’s important to remember this is not just about the City’s decision to invest $17.5 million in a new YMCA, but it’s also about the YMCA’s decision to invest our $17.5 million in Abbotsford. Like you, we cannot take this decision lightly. We have to do our homework and ensure the investment can be protected over the long term.
With few exceptions, those who have voiced their concerns have indicated they support the Y and the potential value it brings, but worry about the economic health of their city. This is fair game and should be part of the informed discussion and prudent due diligence considered by Council.
AT: Why do you think you have run into such strong and vocal opposition?
SB: To find out what influences a citizen’s opinion, you would have to ask them. It’s clear that some residents are opposed to all significant capital investments in Abbotsford at this time. While everyone has the right to voice their concerns, our case for investment in Abbotsford is based on the thousands who have signaled overwhelming support for a YMCA. We have assessed this in a proven, independent manner, with professional research firms who specialize in understanding the scope of engagement and participation this new YMCA will achieve. Without this level of support, we would have exited this opportunity long ago.
There is a lot of misinformation about the YMCA in Abbotsford right now. Misinformation that is false and misleading. So I invite Abbotsford residents to learn more about our charitable organization—about the important social issues we are trying to address in communities across the Lower Mainland, as well as Abbotsford, through the provision of important and convenient programs and services for children, youth and families. You can visit www.ImagineOurYMCA.ca — our cause website that outlines who we are and what we care about. We also invite all residents to visit www.AbbotsfordFamilyYMCA.ca where they can find details about the proposed facility and answers to frequently asked questions.
AT: What can the YMCA offer the taxpayers of Abbotsford?
SB: Offers are easy. Here are our promises. The YMCA is…
- A place that helps families raise healthy, resilient children.
- A place that helps youth and teens achieve their full potential.
- A place that understands health as a resource for living and helps people get there.
- A place that is for everyone, and no one gets turned away due to an inability to pay.
- A place that will help alleviate isolation, disconnection and loneliness.
- A place that understands community needs are met when we work together.
And in the act of creating this new place, we further promise:
- To be fully responsible for 100% of the cost of ongoing operations
- To not ask for one more dime than the City’s share of capital funding
- To build a world class facility which will include a fully accessible aquatic centre, gymnasium, multipurpose spaces for children and youth, family development centre, health and wellness and exercise studio, walking/running track, outdoor play spaces for children and change rooms to serve the whole family.
- To grow programs and services throughout the community in collaboration with schools, community organizations and other levels of government.
These are not empty promises. It is what we are doing today, on the ground, working with families and individuals in communities throughout the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley, BC and Canada.
AT: The YMCA is a large organization and you have had a great deal of success in other cities. Where your model has worked well, why has that been so?
SB: Municipalities across Canada are looking for new ways to meet the needs of their growing communities. The YMCA has a strong track record of partnerships with municipalities to provide much-needed programs for kids, families and individuals of all ages and abilities.
The YMCA tailors its programs and services to meet the unique emerging needs of the community we are serving. Today, we serve more than 100,000 women, men and children through our 145 locations across the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. Some of these are community centres, some are camps, some are employment programs, youth outreach and child care centres. We are able to offer this broad range of successful programs because:
- We don’t work alone: We work with more than 155 community partners to deliver programs and services.
- We enable people to be successful: We don’t focus directly on solving a community’s problems, rather we help men, women, children and youth from that community to reach their full potential so that they can transform and strengthen their own neighbourhoods.
- We are staff and volunteer led: More than 2,800 volunteers and 1,200 staff are delivering YMCA programs in the Lower Mainland.
- We have experience partnering with the local municipal government to take a shared approach to addressing vital needs of the people in their community.
- Local communities have contributed necessary funds to enable the YMCA to build a centre of community to be used as a vehicle to bring programs and services to its community.
While size and experience mean a certain degree of capacity, we do not judge ourselves by how big we are. What matters to us is the ability to be relevant locally—to meet needs in a community where we can make a contribution consistent with our mission and values.
AT: Does the success of the YMCA in Abbotsford depend on the $17.5 million (or 50% of the capital costs) from taxpayers (i.e., is the $17.5 million a deal breaker)?
SB: Yes*. In fact, taxpayers foot the bill when it comes to pretty much every dime a municipality spends. You elect a Council to make informed decisions in consideration of many demands faced by every community, everywhere. For our part, we have tried to make sure the City’s decision, just like the YMCA’s decision, is informed. We have based our case on a few simple assumptions:
- As a growing community, Abbotsford has needs now, and those needs are only going to get bigger with time. Sooner or later, the City will need to address these needs through some kind of investment in public infrastructure of this nature.
- The Y meets its charitable mission every day. We ask volunteers, donors, all levels of government, community partners and private business to join us in this important work.
- A partnership with the Y means you’ll save millions of dollars in the construction and operation of a new community centre. Anyone suggesting otherwise is simply ignoring the facts.
*YMCA-Municipal projects across Canada typically have access to provincial and/or federal infrastructure funding specifically designated to these types of initiatives. Such funding does not exist in British Columbia. This pushes the funding burden on to the proponents which is why an equitable approach to capital funding was established as a starting point. The Y has also acknowledged the equitable sharing of savings if in fact new sources of funding are identified (re: new provincial – federal funding) or we can achieve cost savings in line with the $35MM total project budget.
AT: Councillor Henry Braun has raised the estimated $800,000 per year in tax forgiveness you will be requesting. How can you justify such an enormous demand from the taxpayers of Abbotsford?
SB: Because the benefit accrued through the YMCA’s involvement far exceeds the value of the tax benefit. The Government of Canada gives charities exemption from taxes because we earn it every day. We have to meet standards and responsibilities no private for-profit corporation has to meet. We have committed our $17.5MM, taken responsibility for ongoing operations saving a minimum of $40MM over the 40 year life of the facility. In addition, we have worked with Fraser Health to develop an innovative centre combining a YMCA with a Community Health Centre, collaborated on the renewal of the former hospital site to bring long term care facilities to Abbotsford, not to mention the potential for market housing (which will generate municipal revenues). Furthermore, we have completed a independent economic impact study to help Council see the secondary economic benefits associated with the new Y relative to employment growth, our investment in inclusiveness, and the economic lift a $35MM construction project in a part of the City looking for renewal affords.
Municipalities across Canada have seen fit to recognize the YMCA’s tax exempt status for generations. If opposition to this is based on economic loss, in Abbotsford, there is clearly a case to the contrary.
AT: The word ‘ownership’ seems to have been an on-again off-again part of this proposal in the sense that, at one time the City was expected to retain ownership stake in the property. What ownership options would you be prepared to put on the table for taxpayers to consider?
SB: Council identified the need to consider co-ownership as a condition of their continued involvement. Again, this was the purpose of the Memorandum of Understanding—to identify the conditions necessary to advance this initiative from both the City and YMCA’s perspective. The YMCA is quite willing to find a co-ownership solution as long as it protects our collective ability to reinvest into the next YMCA 40-years from now. We are committed to the future of this community and are in this for the long term. A potential co-ownership model could take a variety of forms and will require input from all parties: The City of Abbotsford, YMCA, and given our potential alignment with a Community Health Centre, the Fraser Valley Health Authority.
AT: How much influence has the Fraser Health Authority (FHA) had over the discussions between the City and the YMCA? Specifically, as the owner of the land on which the YMCA is slated to be but one part of a very large development, has the FHA been a part of the negotiations with the YMCA and the City?
SB: Very positive influence. The Health Authority has plans to build a Community Health Centre that would co-locate services in Primary Care, Home Health, Mental Health as well as a variety of health prevention programs. We think this is a good fit with the YMCA and tackles the issues we have been invited into the community to address. In addition, Fraser Health is working with other agencies to build a brand new 200-bed Seniors Residential Care facility. We are told that these beds are desperately needed in Abbotsford. As reported to Council, part of the funding required for these facilities is generated through the development of market housing. Developers have told the Health Authority that the market housing will not sell unless there is a YMCA on the site.
Overall, a combination of a Y, Community Health Centre, Long Term Care facility and market housing represents a major infrastructure investment in Abbotsford and the rejuvenation of this central city neighbourhood.
AT: If the City of Abbotsford decides it cannot afford to participate in the project until it has put its financial house in order, would the YMCA still be interested in coming to Abbotsford at a later date?
SB: Currently, the YMCA is engaged with three other communities at various stages of the facility development process. We expect to build at least three new YMCA centers over the next decade, all in collaboration with local municipalities. As our work is most advanced in Abbotsford, we see one of three options:
- Say yes to the municipal funding share and we hit the ground running now.
- Say no to the municipal funding share, and we turn our attention and resources to other emerging opportunities.
- Say yes to the municipal funding share, but begin the project as a later date. This is a new option we are prepared to explore. Right now Abbotsford holds the priority one spot of the three projects we will develop. We would be prepared to consider advancing another project and delay Abbotsford potentially for 2-3 years. Perhaps this would benefit the City in consideration of their capacity to finance their share. Such an option would be subject to a firm confirmation of funding by the City in order to allow the YMCA to advance its other plans with some certainty.
AT: Is there anything we’ve forgotten to ask or anything you would like to add?
SB: When considering whether the Abbotsford Family YMCA is a project worthy of support, Abbotsford citizens need to ask themselves what kind of community they want.
The YMCA imagines a community where:
- All children and youth are happier, and have a higher healthy life expectancy than their parents.
- People know their neighbours, respect diversity and thrive on a sense of belonging.
- We share a sense of social responsibility within our community by working together.
- People experience better health in spirit, mind and body.
- Families thrive.
A healthy debate is good. Yet while the nay-sayers have been vocal, many residents support the project, and agree the investment is a smart one for their future:
“The YMCA deal makes sense, both economically, and for what it would bring to our city. In addition to revitalizing central Abbotsford, the YMCA’s facilities and youth programs would be of tremendous benefit to the nearly 2,000 school children in the area.” Excerpt from letter to editor, Abbotsford News
We invite everyone to learn more about our organization and the proposed Abbotsford Family YMCA, at www.AbbotsfordFamilyYMCA.ca.