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Article updated: 12/28/2012 1:02 PM

Vernon Hills Park District takes over YMCA

By Mick Zawislak

The new owner and operator of the soon-to-be former Central Lake YMCA in Vernon Hills will be ready for business at 8 a.m. on New Year's Day.

The Vernon Hills Park District staff will be there to help patrons kick-start their resolutions for 2013. While most of the YMCA staff has been retained for the transition, they will be working for a new employer, whose mission is to rebuild membership.

"You will see people wearing Vernon Hills Park District uniformed shirts with ID," said Jeff Fougerousse, executive director. Unlike prior years, the aquatic facility also will be open Jan. 1.

The only other major difference early on at 700 Lakeview Parkway will be the name -- the Lakeview Fitness Center -- though other changes and upgrades, including a reconfigured lobby, roof repairs and renovation of the steam room, will come over time.

"Our parks staff has put together a 48-hour, a 10-day and a 30-day checklist," Fougerousse said. The park district also hired Matt LaPorte of Cary as facility manager, a "key" position that will focus on customer service and membership building, Fougerousse said.

Membership had dropped from about 1,100 to 800 when the Lake County Family YMCA announced it would close its facilities in Vernon Hills and Waukegan on Oct. 31 because of ongoing money issues.

At the child care center, which has a capacity of 78, participation fell from about 60 to 45 during that time.

With all outstanding issues settled, the scheduled real estate closing Monday officially will be the culmination of an intense effort by village and park district officials to keep the facility open.

YMCA officials said the organization had a debt of $6 million and an annual operating deficit of $800,000. A fundraising campaign fell woefully short to raise the $5 million to $8 million needed to save it.

But village officials, who persuaded the YMCA to build the 30,000-square-foot building on the former driving range in the Continental Executive Parke -- and paid $500,000 toward construction -- did not want to see it close. And the park district valued it for the indoor pool and child care program, offerings it does not have.

"Certainly, if the Y could not save its operations in Vernon Hills, it's a great alternative for the park district to continue to provide services," said Anne O'Connell, spokeswoman for the YMCA.

An agreement was struck for the village to lend the park district $2.025 million from its cash reserves, interest free, to buy the building and property from the YMCA. The pact is for 13 years with no payments for the first three years.

"I guess that makes a good argument why reserves are important," said Village Manager Mike Allison.

Fougerousse said 80-90 percent of the Y's full- and part-time employees were rehired. The YMCA has 18 full-time employees and the park district will have 13 at Lakeview. All 12 child care staffers were hired by the park district, though five have been reduced to part-time initially.

Fees for day care have not changed and park district residents will be paying less for memberships because of the cost savings being passed on, Fougerousse said.

The fate of the Waukegan YMCA remains unknown -- the deadline for a decision was extended to Jan. 1 to allow for fundraising that so far has netted about $87,000.

The Waukegan Y's future will be announced Friday during a public forum in Waukegan, O'Connell said.

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