The historic Cannon Street YMCA has quietly closed, but plans to return 

Trust the Process

click to enlarge cannon_ymca-4.jpg

Ruta Smith

If you happen to live in the Cannonborough-Elliotborough neighborhood of downtown Charleston, you may have noticed the YMCA building on Cannon Street appears to be closed. Then again, it happened so quietly, you might not have noticed at all.

A blue and white banner now advertises a month-to-month or eight-month lease. It is another significant change to the features of what was a traditionally African-American community that has been gradually transformed by gentrification and the migration of college students, young families, and metropolitan transplants. Established in 1866, as detailed on its website, it remains one of the oldest continuously running "heritage" Ys in the country, YMCA branches historically established for African Americans.

In an interview with City Paper, Paul Stoney, branch president and CEO, assures that, in fact, the closure is temporary and the Cannon Street YMCA is still functioning. During what Stoney says is a strategic transition, the organization is partnering with local community groups to provide space for its ongoing programs.

"We were originally chartered as the YMCA for colored boys," says Stoney. "Since that time, we've grown to have programs and services not only on the peninsula, but James Island, Johns Island, and in Mt. Pleasant." Some of the programs they are currently providing, which serve primarily African-American and lower income community members, include Y-Achievers, a college readiness program geared toward students of color; the Y-Dance program which provides affordable ballet and modern dance lessons; and the Y-Princess and Y-Guides programs, designed to strengthen the relationship between fathers and their children.

"From a programmatic standpoint, we haven't missed a beat," says Stoney. "Currently we are using other locations on the peninsula to provide these same services. For Y-Achievers, for example, we meet at the North Campus of the College of Charleston ... We're one of the only organizations on the peninsula that does the programs we do."

Stoney, who started his 34-year career with the YMCA in Charlotte and joined the Charleston branch in 2006, came with a reputation for developing mission-impact programs, or those with a special emphasis on the underserved. What he inherited, he says, was a YMCA in severe financial trouble. "It had been cannibalizing itself in order to stay afloat by selling off property. Even then, the building that you see was outdated, and it remains outdated." Accordingly, Stoney says, developing the programs and making the renovations necessary to bring the Cannon Street Y into the future, and in step with the rapidly changing demographics of its environment, has been challenging.

"We have developed a special emphasis on our inner city community programs, and certainly we are very proud of the programs that we have been able to operate." But, Stoney says, if the organization had the funds he would have redeveloped the building himself "into something that would be available to not only a broader demographic of the community, but that would also generate income." Indeed, despite the fact that program participation continues to grow, according to Stoney, because of the level of the financial commitment designed to increase access to programs for low-income communities, it is not enough to generate the kinds of funds needed to update the facility. Such funds could ostensibly be used, for example, to renovate the building and turn it into a state-of-the-art workout center or office space that members of the broader community could buy memberships to use.

"What we intend to do, and what we are currently in conversations about, is making that building more a community-type facility that we can also operate YMCA programs out of. It may [simultaneously] be able to be used for office space, meeting space, event space." Stoney says the temporary closure is related to a partnership he is currently working on that would allow for this more integrated Y model, the details of which remain, at this stage, confidential. "One thing we do know," Stoney says, is that "the new business model has to make perfect business sense." Until now, it has not, he says.

When asked why, despite the rich history of the Cannon Street Y, Charleston remains the only major metropolitan area in the country that does not have a major YMCA presence, Stoney points to a combination of factors. "I think land, and land availability, has a lot to do with it. And other places have generations of YMCA participants who then become business owners and homeowners who raise their children in the Y, who then become business owners and themselves give back to the community ... There just has not been a YMCA culture developed here. I would also say racial segregation has something to do with it, because we're behind many cities, traditionally, as it relates to integrating socially. We've still got some work to do."

And indeed, with many African-Americans having sold their homes or otherwise having been priced out of the area, it seems plausible that many would-be Y torchbearers simply no longer live here. Regardless, Stoney remains forward-looking and optimistic about the Y's future on the peninsula.

"Change is inevitable," he says. "If somebody had been doing what we are doing now 25 years ago, you and I would not be sitting here and we'd probably have a lot more money, but in order to make that change we need investments. I see us returning within the next two years once we figure out the plans for that building. We are doing what we can and we'll continue to evolve."

Community members interested in learning more about the Greater YMCA of Charleston can visit ymcagc.org. Stoney says one way community members can help support the YMCA's vision is by making a financial contribution. "Those contributions help us send an additional child to camp," he says. "They help us provide another swim lesson. They help us provide another $1,000 college scholarship for books." Furthermore, he says, hearing from the community about what types of programs they would like to see helps, "because that is what is going to take us to the next level and help us achieve greater financial stability."

As Stoney embarks on this new vision for the Cannon Street Y, he is not worried about how such changes are perceived by the families the Cannon Street Y currently serves: "Those families know that the YMCA has never forsaken them and that we never will. I think the only skepticism may come from people who are not aware. Yes, we're gonna be out of pocket for a little bit from a location standpoint, but dance still happens every Saturday."

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