The Buffalo Niagara YMCA for years has done what it can to maintain the cramped brick buildings on Delaware Avenue in North Buffalo and Belmont Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda that house two of its older locations.
Both branches offer adequate children's play areas, swimming pools, gyms, workout rooms and locker rooms — but all fall short of modern standards.
That's why the YMCA is considering closing the two older branches and replacing them with a single, state-of-the-art North Buffalo YMCA.
YMCA leaders say the proposed branch would have more amenities for members of every age and the wider community. They pointed to the updated and expanded Lockport Family YMCA as a model for what the new branch could offer.
"I think we have an opportunity to better serve the people in that area," said John Ehrbar, Buffalo Niagara YMCA's president and CEO.
The agency is in the initial planning stages for the project, which could cost $20 million. The YMCA recently sent an email to its members outlining what was under consideration, and a market research firm soon will contact both members and non-members in Buffalo and the Tonawandas to ask what they think of the proposal.
Some members of the Ken-Ton YMCA weren't happy at the prospect of losing their branch.
But the YMCA said it wants to invest more in Buffalo. And city officials greeted this development with enthusiasm, saying the proposal reinforces the neighborhood's renaissance.
"There's so many positive things happening in North Buffalo now," said Joel P. Feroleto, who represents the Common Council's Delaware District.
The Delaware and Ken-Ton YMCA branches have served local families for generations. The Delaware Family Y – the longtime starting spot of the Thanksgiving Day road race known as the Turkey Trot – opened in 1927, Ehrbar said. The Ken-Ton Y opened on Belmont Avenue in 1955, just as the town's population was experiencing the post-war baby boom.
The Ken-Ton Y has more space outside for parking, a jogging track and a pavilion where children in camp can eat lunch or snacks.
The Delaware Y is more land-locked. A garden planted by children takes up much of the available green space, parking is at a premium at peak times, and employees set up a tent on asphalt to offer shelter from the sun during summer day camp.
Inside, it's charitable to say employees do the best they can with the limited space available.
The Delaware Y has limited accessibility for people with disabilities, and no elevators serve its second floor. The building is divided into numerous smaller rooms, creating a sense of confinement, conceded Greg Larson, the district vice president who oversees the Ken-Ton and Delaware locations.
The gym doesn't have room for bleachers and the height of the backboards can't be adjusted for younger basketball players.
The pool, like at Ken-Ton, is a lane pool without a dedicated area for swimming lessons and senior exercise classes. Swimmers coming out of the locker rooms at Delaware to use the pool have to carefully navigate along a narrow ledge to get to the shallow end for their classes.
There are window air-conditioning units at Delaware to ease the heat in the summer, but no central air.
The rooms for children are too small to handle their numbers during summer day camp, he said. Ken-Ton's child watch area can fit just 10 people.
The workout rooms are small. Delaware's weight room has trophies dating back decades in a glass display case and an ancient fireplace hidden behind a wooden cover. Ken-Ton's weight and cardio rooms were carved out of old racquetball courts.
"It's been repurposed many times over the years," Larson said.
Lockport building viewed as model
Ken-Ton, the larger of the two, has about 2,700 members. Delaware has about 1,600 members. The two buildings, combined, are smaller than the Lockport facility.
Lockport, officials said, is a good model for what a new North Buffalo YMCA would look like and offer. The former YMCA in the City of Lockport closed following the October 2018 opening of a $17 million branch on Snyder Drive in the Town of Lockport.
The 52,000-square-foot building features a shallow water pool and splash pad, expansive gym, two exercise studios and a children's "adventure center."
The YMCA also recently opened a new Independent Health Family Branch in Amherst near the Erie Community College North Campus. But that facility, at 97,000 square feet, is the largest in the system by far and beyond what officials envision for North Buffalo.
Michael Dolan, chairman of the Buffalo Niagara YMCA board of directors, said the agency has weighed consolidating the aging Delaware and Ken-Ton branches for four or five years.
He pointed to the community's embrace of the suburban Lockport and Independent Health branches and said, "We think it can have a tremendous and even better success in North Buffalo."
Ehrbar said Buffalo is home to the two smallest YMCA branches, Delaware and William-Emslie Family YMCA in Broadway Fillmore.
"The City of Buffalo, we feel, is being underserved by the Y," Ehrbar said.
He said it makes sense, if they move ahead with their plans, to build one branch to replace both Delaware and Ken-Ton because those are the two closest YMCA locations, separated by just 3 miles.
An email to members of both locations, sent late last week and signed by Larson, explained the thinking behind the plan and told members they may be getting a call from FourSquare Research, the market research firm hired to gauge public support for the project.
Ehrbar said the firm will conduct 1,000 interviews with members and non-members in the service area.
Their questions will include whether members would be willing to pay a higher price to join the new branch. Membership to the Delaware branch is $58 per month for a family – Ken-Ton families pay $61 – while the same membership costs $70 at the Lockport location.
The higher cost hasn't hurt membership in Lockport, Ehrbar said. The number of members stood at 2,000 when the old facility closed but at 12,000 as of September.
"You'd get higher value for your dollar at a new facility," Ehrbar said.
Two other factors will determine whether the YMCA proceeds with the project.
First, the organization must raise enough money to make the new branch financially viable. Officials hope support from foundations and other donors will offset a good part of the estimated $20 million project cost.
They also must find the right location. Ehrbar said the agency wants to build the new facility within a square mile of the Delaware Avenue branch. He said they're looking for about 10 acres of land and they've narrowed their search to a handful of sites.
This radius includes the properties at Elmwood and Hertel avenues that Uniland Development Co. has collected, as well as the shuttered Kmart on Hertel, for example, but Ehrbar and Dolan did not identify the sites under serious consideration.
The Buffalo Niagara YMCA informed members of the Delaware and Ken-Ton branches that both would close if the agency opens a new branch.
The agency likely would sell the properties in that case, something with which it has had mixed success. The YMCA was able to sell its former Northeast branch in Snyder to Daemen College. The City of Lockport building, however, remains on the market.
'I will leave'
The closing of the two older branches would hit Ken-Ton members harder, YMCA officials acknowledge.
"Please don't let them move any farther south, because I will leave," said Suzanne DeMonte, of North Tonawanda, who works as a clerk for that city and has belonged to the Ken-Ton Y since 2005.
She said she likes its family-friendly, nonjudgmental atmosphere and doesn't want to fight more traffic to get to a bigger branch in North Buffalo.
Ken Tunnah, of Eggertsville, a retired electrical engineer, said he comes to the Ken-Ton Y about three times a week, usually with his wife, Carol. He said he likes seeing the range of users, from young children to seniors, and he thinks it has everything he needs.
"What is it you want, a palace?" Tunnah said.
Also, the Ken-Ton branch works extensively with the local community, including with and within the Ken-Ton school district, and the YMCA doesn't want that relationship to end, Ehrbar said.
John Crangle, a member of the Tonawanda Town Board, said he believes many Ken-Ton YMCA members would switch over to the town's Aquatic and Fitness Center instead of moving to the new North Buffalo YMCA. "I think it will only help us," said Crangle, noting the aquatic center has struggled to compete with the gyms that have proliferated in the area.
On the other side of the city line, Feroleto recounted the Albright-Knox Art Gallery expansion, the new housing along Rachel Vincent Way, the transformation of the old North Park library branch into an Italian-American cultural center and the new Dash's Market on Hertel as examples of the neighborhood's continuing revival.
"It does not surprise me the YMCA wants to expand its footprint in North Buffalo," the councilman said.