Members of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo reacted Thursday with concern and disbelief that the center's Northtowns site on North Forest Road in Getzville will close.
As had been feared by some members, the JCC's board of directors decided to close the Benderson Family Building by Labor Day in a dramatic effort to pull the agency out of growing debt and improve services over the long haul.
About 125 employees, including about 25 who have full-time positions, will lose their jobs.
The board plans to build a new facility somewhere else in the Northtowns within three to four years.
In the meantime, members will be left without a central meeting spot that many considered a second home.
"This is an institution for us that we love. We were one of the first members," said Rhoda Jacobs of Amherst, who was at the center Thursday afternoon with her husband, Irving.
The couple, senior citizens, visit twice a week for fitness classes and camaraderie with friends. They weren't sure where they would go once the center closes.
"It's a sad day," said Jacobs.
The JCC made arrangements with Planet Fitness in Amherst for three-month complimentary memberships, and the Buffalo Athletic Club also is offering a special deal to JCC members.
Other members said they felt blindsided by the announcement.
"There's still the feeling among membership that we were really locked out of this process. It just doesn't feel like it was a respectful process at all," said Cheryl Butensky, a member for 25 years who circulated a petition asking the board to involve members in the decision.
If asked, members would have agreed to contribute more to keep the facility going until a new one could be built, Butensky said.
The JCC board, however, found that scenario was not practical, said Andrew Shaevel, a board member.
The Getzville site was operating at a $500,000 annual deficit that was expected to grow, and board members figured it was more prudent to put $2 million to $3 million toward a new building, rather than pay that amount in operating losses over the next three or four years.
The Benderson building, constructed in 1974 for $4 million, would have cost $15 million to renovate and reconfigure -- far more than what it would cost to build a new, smaller and more efficient site, said Shaevel.
Some parts of the 100,000-square-foot building are overcrowded, while others are highly underused, he said.
The board's decision to shutter "the heart of our community in the suburbs for the past 35 years" was the result of a "heart-wrenching debate" among board members for the past year, he said.
"In the end, what we learned is that the systemic challenges in operating this building are unsustainable," he said.
But some members wondered if officials had mismanaged the facility.
Locker rooms at the building were renovated at considerable expense less than a year ago, Butensky pointed out.
"If you knew you were in the red, why would you do such a thing?" she said.
Butensky also questioned why the JCC didn't do more to keep the rent-paying Kadimah School, which moved to a different facility on Eggert Road.
The phased closing of the Benderson facility will begin June 30 and be completed by Labor Day.
The JCC's Holland Family Building at 787 Delaware Ave. will remain open and will be renovated to add more parking and office space, enlarge the fitness facility and update the locker rooms.
The agency's early childhood program will move into Temple Beth Am on Sheridan Drive, and senior services and after-school programs will move to other locations in the Northtowns, still undetermined.
Other JCC programs will be relocated to the Delaware Avenue site.
The board was committed to maintaining a JCC presence in both Buffalo and the Northtowns, Shaevel said.
"We believe Buffalo is primed for an economic renaissance," he said.
The board unanimously approved a five-phase strategic plan during a meeting Wednesday evening.
As part of the plan, the building will be sold for $2 million to the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, which will study how the nearby Weinberg Campus might be able to use the facility for services to the frail elderly.
The Benderson family, after which the current Benderson Family Building is named, will continue to support the JCC's efforts.
The Bendersons have committed $2 million for the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies to purchase the site and another $2 million as "seed money" for construction of a new facility.
The new facility would likely be built in Amherst or Clarence, where an estimated 70 percent of the area's Jewish population lives, according to JCC officials.