The YM-Bubble-A

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

For the last year, the Park Cities YMCA, which lies at the social heart of ultra-competitive, affluent, sports- and youth-minded Highland Park and University Park, has been engaged in a bitter battle for its soul. That's a lot of battling over what may turn out to have been a small prize anyway.

The Y wanted to build a new teen center. But the people of the Park Cities were worried that a Young Men's Christian Association teen center might attract young Christian men from outside the moated walls of their own community.

At town meetings and in fliers distributed door-to-door, opponents of the Y plan said they would go along with zoning for the new teen center only if membership were barred to non-residents of the Park Cities. And for months, officials for the Park Cities Y kept making noises as if that idea or something close to it might be doable. At worst, they said, the membership might be 20 percent non-Park Cities.

Rand Carlson

Way too much, the critics told the University Park Planning and Zoning Commission. How about zero?

It's hard to understand. In theological terms, think of it this way: You have Christianity. Then you have your Park Cities Christianity. Picture it as a subset of the main religion.

But now, no matter which kind of Christianity it espouses, the Park Cities Y is in a fix. On November 2, the University Park City Council gave tentative approval to zoning for the teen center with an explicit no-wiggle-room fiat attached: "Membership in the teen center is limited to residents of University Park, Highland Park and the Highland Park Independent School District and their bona fide guests."

Faced with a provision that would set in concrete geographical bars to membership, the Park Cities Y leadership finally backed off from its earlier suggestions that something along these lines might be sort of probably be the outcome anyway, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. In a change of tone equivalent to David McDavid the car dealer suddenly channeling Martin Luther, the chairman of the Park Cities Y told The Dallas Morning News in no uncertain terms, "Limiting the membership geographically is unacceptable."

Chairman Randy Garrett and other Y officials gave the impression that the main problem with a geographical limit on membership was the conflict it would pose with the Y's "mission statement."

No kidding. The mission statement of the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas says: "The YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas is a human care organization based on Christian values that promotes, through its programs, the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of individuals of all religions, races, ages and communities."

Let's see if we could come up with a blended version:

"The Park Cities YMCA is a human care organization based on Christian values that promotes, through its programs, the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of residents of University Park, Highland Park and the Highland Park Independent School District and their bona fide guests."

The darned thing just doesn't read right, does it?

But there is an intriguing mystery here: Why, if the mission statement wasn't much of a problem all year long during the debate leading up to this moment, did the Y suddenly raise the sword of principle when explicitly geographical language got into a proposed ordinance?

For most of the last year, Garrett and other Park Cities Y officials felt fine about promising other kinds of bars and limits to outside membership. According to the minutes of the University Park Planning and Zoning Commission, Garrett promised them last August 30 that membership in the teen center would be limited to people who already belonged to the Park Cities YMCA on Preston Road. Park Cities Y director Don Hannah said membership in the Park Cities Y was 80 percent Park Cities residents.

Unspoken but implicit in this arrangement was a double-hit on membership fees. First you have to pay $100 to join the Park Cities Y and agree to pay annual membership fees of $588 (as opposed to $50 to join the Park South YMCA in southern Dallas and annual fees of $288). So there's about $600 a year. Then, on top of that, there would be a fee of $300 to $400 a year for the teen center. About a grand a year.

In fact, if your family already belonged to Park South and for some peculiar reason you wanted your kid to go play basketball with the wealthy white kids at the Park Cities teen center, it would cost you more like $1,300 a year, because in order to play there you would have to belong to three Ys simultaneously -- counting the teen center.

That should have worked perfectly. If that was morally acceptable to the Y, why not the geographical barriers?

I have a disadvantage here in trying to answer this question, because hardly anyone from the YMCA would talk with me about it at any length. I spent a week trying to reach Ben Casey Jr., chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Y. I called back and pleaded that I would talk to any Metropolitan Y official in Casey's stead. I also put a call in early in the week to Arnie Collins, spokesman of the YMCA of the USA in Chicago, and explained that I needed some help with the issue of geographical bars to membership in the Y. He promised to call back. He didn't. Nobody did. My subsequent pleas for help were of no avail.

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.

"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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