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Let's lure Ocean Community YMCA's magic to the Norwich-New London corridor

It's hard to think of a more successful community-building nonprofit around here than the Ocean Community YMCA, which is about to christen its magnificent new $7.3 million facility in Mystic, its second major project since it began implementing a 2006 strategic planning study.

Its first project, a $8.5 million rebuild of its flagship facility in downtown Westerly, almost doubled membership for that branch, from 5,100 to 9,500. That's almost half the population of the town.

Membership in Mystic is budgeted to grow from 5,000 to 7,500 in two years.

To visit the Westerly Y on a busy weekend afternoon is to witness community involvement at its best, a hive of activity bringing together all kinds of people of all ages, coming for swimming, basketball, yoga, fitness lessons and fitness facilities, classes and instruction. It is enormously family friendly, with programs for adults and children and on-site child care.

It's open to everyone. The Ocean Community Y gave $600,000 in scholarships this year, a reflection of the generous community support for such outreach.

The fundraising for Mystic got a $1.2 million contribution from Sekhar and Archana Naik of Mystic, for whom the facility is named. There were similar large contributions from donors who lean toward anonymity, said Maureen Fitzgerald, Ocean Community Y president and chief executive officer. What wonderful generosity.

Two businesses that have been substantial donors include Washington Trust Bancorp and the Valenti family of dealerships.

The new projects in Westerly and Mystic are a formula for success that Fitzgerald says can be replicated in other communities, including Norwich, Groton, Montville, New London and Waterford, all part of  Ocean Community's service area, as designated by the national Y.

The next major project, which already is being scoped out, is a remake of Ocean Community's third existing branch, in Richmond, R.I., currently in a storefront without a pool. A search for land for a new facility to replace that one is underway.

But a new branch in New London or Norwich or other communities in this part of the region could follow or even be developed simultaneously with the one around Richmond, Fitzgerald said.

"We are always looking to expand our mission, using our strategic plan to do that," she said.

That should be a whistle for community leaders here, especially in New London and Norwich, the two cities. Fitzgerald said she already has been involved in some conversations with community leaders and developers in this part of the region.

She said the Y would especially welcome a partnership with developers, municipalities, schools or hospitals and would then run any facility that comes of such a collaboration. Under its current model for new facilities, the Y raises more money than it borrows against future membership fees. In Mystic, that was a successful $4.5 million capital campaign.

Certainly, New London has some corporate donors that could help bring the Y magic to the city. I think of Electric Boat, which apparently still is looking for a place to show some community generosity. Then there's Deepwater Wind, which could expect an even warmer welcome with some community building. And what better way for Yale New Haven Hospital to support its new host community than helping establish a facility dedicated to healthier living?

I believe Connecticut College has land near its own wonderful fitness center, which would make a very generous contribution toward a community Y, close to New London, Waterford and Montville residents.

New London Mayor Michael Passero used to be a big prominent advocate for a city community center, before he wasn't. Maybe it's time for him to revisit that enthusiasm.

Certainly there are a lot of promising locations in New London, from any one of the big empty downtown buildings that might even come by way of donation, or city property, like the waterfront Riverside Park.

Fitzgerald clearly signaled to me the Ocean Community YMCA is ready and willing to bring its winning formula to New London. All it would take to push the idea quickly into planning would be some community and institutional leadership here.

They will be cutting the ribbon on the new Mystic Y on Jan. 17. Look no further than this remarkable facility, with its fitness classrooms, pool, tennis, rowing, beachfront and vast exercise room with walls of glass framing wide water vistas, and think of how well such a facility could serve the people of New London, or Norwich, Montville, Groton or Waterford.

There's an extremely qualified partner ready and willing to get involved.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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