Pottstown took on the YMCA - and won. They're saving themselves along the way. | Maria Panaritis

There were a lot of heroes in the rescue of one of the Philadelphia region’s soon-to-close YMCAs. But none as important as Phoenixville-raised Chuck Gulati. Amid a jaw-dropping community outcry over the fact that the money-losing Pottstown Y would be closed by its regional parent, Gulati bought the building to keep it open in this bedraggled Montgomery County borough. He swung by the Y on Thursday, May, 24, 2018, after the deal went public.

There are so many heroes in this story, I almost don’t know which of them to begin praising first.

For starters, they include the people of Pottstown. And a Phoenixville native named Chuck Gulati. And even a few politicians (hold your chests, I know!) Let’s also include the until-very-recently-reviled regional YMCA network, an avowedly mission-minded group that became Public Enemy No. 1 last winter by announcing plans to close shop this summer in Pottstown, one of largely affluent Montgomery County’s poorest zip codes.

In a scrum to save the Y, all came together in a fight unlike any this town has seen in decades. This onetime factory hub on the Schuylkill between Philly and Reading has lost its manufacturing, its middle class, and, just last year, a $1 million taxpayer when its local hospital turned nonprofit. But moxie dies hard in this place.

 

Camera icon BRADLEY C. BOWER / For The Inquirer
The Little YMCA That Could: The Pottstown Branch of the regional YMCA network is staying open after a frantic advocacy effort that others should look to as inspiration for how to keep vital institutions alive in economically vulnerable towns like this once-soaring industrial town between Philly and Reading, Pa.

 

On Wednesday, against the backdrop of possible protests ahead of next month’s planned closure of the Pottstown branch of the Philadelphia Freedom Valley YMCA, the nonprofit group that touts “social responsibility” as a core value announced an about-face.

Instead of ditching a decades-old facility that the regional network no longer wanted to spend millions to maintain, it found a buyer: Gulati, 47, a YMCA member from Gilbertsville. Instead of closing, the Y now becomes a tenant to Gulati, who with his family also helped save the historic onetime dance hall in Pottstown, Sunnybrook Ballroom.

“One of my favorite quotes out there is go out into the world and do well,” Gulati said. “But more importantly, go out into the world and do good. Every once in a while an opportunity comes around like this, where the business model will allow us to do well, but more importantly, it does good for the community.” 

Just as his dad, entrepreneur Jack Gulati, kept Reading from losing its minor-league hockey team a few years ago by buying the squad, Chuck is Pottstown’s mini Superman.

“I’m just absolutely delighted,” YMCA chief executive Shaun Elliott said when we talked Friday. “Chuck Galati and his family are absolutely essential to allowing us to keep the facility open.”

 

Camera icon BRADLEY C. BOWER / For The Inquirer
Philadelphia Freedom Valley CEO Shaun Elliott, left, says Chuck Gulati, right, deserves a lot of the credit for agreeing to buy the Pottstown YMCA building and lease it back so that the regional nonprofit doesn’t have to spend millions on maintaining the property. They’re pictured at the Pottstown branch on Thursday, May, 24, 2018.

 

The YMCA are the ones you would expect to have the bleeding hearts in a story like this. But Chuck, who once thought he’d spend his life working with kids, is the guy with the extraordinary moral conscience in this script.

Many who fought the Y’s closure pointed to how Pottstown, with a median income in the $40,000 range and many students receiving free school lunches, could not afford to lose this place. The Y was providing membership discounts to half its members, including from the borough’s sizable minority population. The local NAACP (a racially and ethnically diverse chapter) vigorously opposed the move; area school boards opposed it through resolutions; police also fought the move.

A citizen task force assembled by the Conshohocken-based YMCA mothership to assess the decision also concluded it would be a mistake.

“The NAACP saw the whole thing as somewhat discriminatory because the Freedom Valley YMCA was investing in high-end Y’s elsewhere in the region such as Spring Valley, Upper Perkiomen — they’re building a new one in Willow Grove — but they were closing a mission one in Pottstown,” Larry Cohen, an NAACP member and liaison to the task force, told me.

 

 

Camera icon BRADLEY C. BOWER / For The Inquirer
Wellness/Fitness workout partners Lora Oherricka, left and Sharon Grerth, right, are shown using the Pottstown Branch YMCA Thursday, May, 24, 2018 in Pottstown, Pa.

 

From the Y’s perspective, shutting down smaller ones and consolidating into bigger, newer ones is an efficient way to stay financially viable. From the public’s, it’s an abrogation of their mission to keep local communities strong. Both are true.

Elliott says the Pottstown Y was operating at a loss in a building that would have required millions in upkeep.

The community was right to call out the Y for this apparent shift too far toward corporate efficiency at the expense of mission. Even local lawmakers made it clear they were unhappy, including Democratic County Commissioner Val Arkoosh. She and others like Republican Sen. Bob Mensch worked behind the scenes to help reverse the group’s November announcement.

But it was Gulati who walked into the local Y in January and struck up a conversation with its director about why they were closing.  The deal was done four months later.

Camera icon BRADLEY C. BOWER / For The Inquirer
Philadelphia Freedom Valley CEO Shaun Elliott, right, nearly closed the Pottstown YMCA. He can thank Chuck Gulati, left, who came forth amid community outrage to buy the building and help keep the nonprofit loyal to its pledge of “social responsibility.”

 

I’d like to think Gulati’s interest was rooted in something deeper than dollars and cents. He studied criminal justice in college before joining the family business. He’s all in for Pottstown and its potential to revitalize.

“Spark is there,” Gulati said.  The problem is it keeps getting these body blows.”

Gulati deserves props for being “willing to put his neck out there and say, ‘Let’s go,’ ” activist/businessman Don Smale told me.

In the '60s, to protest that Sunnybrook had a pool that was off-limits to blacks, NAACP activists hopped the fences and jumped in, chapter president Johnny Corson told me. They got their own pool after that. Corson thought that spirit had died — until now.

“This,” Corson said, “is the Pottstown that I grew up with.”

“I’m not an activist,” said Smale, a former chamber of commerce official who was on the task force. “I’ve never been involved in anything like this thing. … The next thing you know it turned into a really big deal and I started telling myself, ‘How did I end up here?’ “

Like I said: Moxie. They still make it here, folks.