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Tonawanda pitches YMCA on expanding, not closing, Ken-Ton branch

News that the Buffalo Niagara YMCA may construct a larger location in North Buffalo caught at least one party by surprise:

The Town of Tonawanda, which could lose its Ken-Ton Family YMCA branch if the nonprofit moves forward with a consolidation plan shared with members this month.

While the Buffalo Niagara YMCA is weighing closing its Ken-Ton and Delaware Family branches to make way for one state-of-the-art facility in North Buffalo, the town had a reorganization plan of its own.

Tonawanda officials are considering moving the town's Water and Sewer Maintenance Department from its longtime home on Belmont Avenue just south of the Ken-Ton Y.

If this happens, Tonawanda leaders had hoped the YMCA would take over the town's property and expand there.

Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger met with John Ehrbar, the Buffalo Niagara YMCA's president and CEO, on Thursday to hear more about the organization's plans and to sell him on staying in the town. Ehrbar emphasized the agency hasn't made any decision yet, nor has the town.

"Tell 'em we'll give it to them cheap," Tonawanda Councilman Daniel J. Crangle said of the town's Belmont Avenue property.

But the dueling proposals leave the fate of a prime section of the Town of Tonawanda up in the air and, perhaps, available for future redevelopment.

The two properties combined are just under 12 acres. They create a long triangle wedged between Belmont Avenue and the town's Rails to Trails bike path, bounded by Colvin Boulevard at its northern end and Sheridan Drive just to the south.

The Ken-Ton Family YMCA opened at 535 Belmont Ave. in 1955.

Playgrounds, a basketball court, a pavilion and a walking and running track are just to the north of the YMCA building and parking is just to the south, on a total of about 4 acres.

The building itself, however, shows its age, much like the older Delaware Family branch 3 miles to the south that opened in 1927.

That's why Buffalo Niagara YMCA officials are considering replacing the two locations with one, larger location with modern amenities similar to the spacious Lockport Family YMCA that opened in October 2018.

YMCA weighs replacing two aging branches with single North Buffalo facility

The organization informed members of both branches earlier this month, but the news caught Town of Tonawanda officials off guard.

Crangle, who has served as the Tonawanda Town Board point person on recreational projects for years, learned about the plan from a Buffalo News reporter.

Crangle said town officials have recently weighed the idea of moving the water and sewer maintenance division from 525 Belmont to its Highway Department site on Woodward Avenue.

Emminger said it could make financial sense to consolidate those operations at one location. "We're trying to reduce our footprint in the town," he said. "We're trying to save money."

It's not clear how long the water and sewer division has been at the 7-acre property on Belmont, where piles of dirt and rock loom behind and to the side of the main building.

Emminger said the YMCA about eight years ago asked the town if it was willing to give up some of its land for additional YMCA parking. The town turned down the agency back then, Emminger said.

Now, however, Tonawanda might be willing to turn over the entire property. But it might be too late.

YMCA officials, in their letter to members and in interviews, made it clear any replacement branch would be built in North Buffalo, not Kenmore or Tonawanda. Ehrbar said the agency wants to invest in the city, and it doesn't make sense to build two new branches so close together.

Some Tonawanda residents have taken to social media to raise concerns about losing the Ken-Ton branch and about having to travel farther away to use a new location.

Ehrbar and Emminger plan to talk more.

"We are still in the data-gathering phase regarding our plans for North Buffalo," the YMCA said in an email Thursday. "The information John received today provides us with additional data to consider. However, the market study we are conducting will be the primary driver of our decision. If we do move to one new YMCA branch in North Buffalo, we will develop plans to continue and grow our programs offered in Ken-Ton."

Emminger said he did talk about what the town envisions for its Belmont Avenue property and how the YMCA could fit into that picture.

Whatever the YMCA decides to do also would affect the town's Aquatic and Fitness Center, which faces increased competition from gyms and workout centers and runs an annual deficit, town officials said. ("They're like pizza places," Crangle said of the gyms' ubiquity.)

Emminger said he looks forward to continuing the conversation about how the town and agency can work together.

"I think some of the things we threw at him will be a game changer," the supervisor said.

Is there any chance the YMCA and the town both end up leaving Belmont Avenue, freeing up the combined 11 or so acres for another use? It's a prime location just south of Kenney Field and an interchange with the I-290, and just north of Sheridan Drive.

"That scenario, in my opinion, won't happen," Emminger said.

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