The YM-Bubble-A

How the Y became a dangerous foreign threat to Park Cities teens

The one Y person who was nice enough to talk, very briefly, was Randy Garrett, the Park Cities Y chairman, whom I reached by phone at his place of business as a real estate salesman. Garrett said at first that no one could really talk to me in detail about geographical limits "because everyone is busy getting ready for the holidays.

"At this point in time," he said, "everyone has been out of pocket, and I really cannot respond to any of your questions."

Confused, because at the time we were still in the month of November, I asked whether the Park Cities Y board had a philosophical objection to geographical limits.

Rand Carlson

"Yes," he said.

And we were off the phone pretty quickly after that.

So why specifically is it the geographical limits? Why are those the hot button? And why such shyness on the topic?

Given the lack of response from the Y to my inquiries, I am left to speculate about why the issue of geographical exclusiveness may have brought Y officials to some brink they could not cross. In trying to guess, it occurs to me that it could have something to do with the national assault currently being mounted on the charitable tax-exempt status of YMCA fitness centers all over America by the commercial health and fitness industry.

In particular, the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), which has its headquarters in Boston, has filed a complaint with the IRS arguing that, as the Y has gone upscale in the marketing of its fitness centers, it has abandoned the charitable core of its mission in ways that ought to render it ineligible for the extremely valuable tax exemptions it receives from the IRS.

At the core of that argument is an IRS criterion used to determine whether an enterprise can truly be considered a public charity. That principle? It's called "community accessibility."

Of course, the reason for IHRSA's complaint is obvious. IHRSA members want to make money from fitness centers. They think the tax-exempt status of upscale YMCA clubs gives the Y an undeserved market advantage. But IHRSA says the issue has been created by the Y, not by them, because it's the Y that has gone after what should be a strictly commercial market.

Kristen Adams, IHRSA's government relations specialist in Boston, told me, "We feel many YMCAs are straying from their original charitable mission."

And that's based only on evidence that fancy YMCA "business" clubs around the country have adopted rules banning children during the week and that they charge high fees that exclude poor people, young people, and the elderly.

Think if there was a crazy YMCA in some loony-tunes affluent place called Park Cities, Texas, where the Y facility actually was established according to a local law explicitly banning people from outside certain geographical boundaries from joining. If you were the lawyer representing IHRSA to the IRS, and if somebody handed you that story, wouldn't you clap your hands and think, "My personal holiday season has just begun"?

The outcome of all this is uncertain. At the end of last week, rumors were rife that the Y would abandon the teen center project entirely. If that happens and it's a moral victory, please write and tell me who had the moral.

One thing does need to be said here, however, on behalf of the Park Cities. Park Cities Mayor Harold Peek did call me, and he told me that the ban on outside membership has nothing at all to do with race, ethnicity, income, or any of that. "That's not the point of the thing at all," Mayor Peek said. "I strongly challenge that type of thinking, because that's not accurate."

Peek said the sole concern of the city council in asking the Y to agree to geographical limitations was traffic. "We're trying to control the traffic that goes into our small community here. We're trying to work and be concerned about safety."

I did offer the point that, according to the minutes of the November 2, 1999, University Park City Council meeting -- the meeting at which Peek and all but one other council member voted in favor of asking for the geographical limits -- a traffic consultant had presented his report showing that the teen center at the proposed site would cause a reduction in local traffic.

Danny Cummings of CMP Engineering Ltd. told the council that so many apartments were being torn down and people displaced to make room for the teen center that "in reality there should be a reduction in the traffic volumes on the area streets resulting from a loss of approximately 140 residential units."

The mayor told me, "I flat don't recall that."

OK. I forget stuff all the time too. Really, the question is this: Way out there, even beyond this issue, what is the plan when the kids in the Park Cities, in the course of their lives, have to go outside the Bubble? Or is that a stupid question because they won't?

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