ST. GEORGE – The YMCA in St. George is moving to a new location after the town’s newly elected mayor and council surprised the charity with a plan to start charging $3,500 a month in rent.

The Y runs the only licenced child-care program in St. George out of the Magaguadavic Place community centre. The group’s been there since August 2018 rent-free, except to cover certain maintenance expenses such as repainting and replacing tables and chairs as needed.

Newly elected St. George Mayor John Detorakis said he and the current council want to take the community centre in a new direction.

Their aim, he told The Saint Croix Courier, is “to make the community center available to as many community groups as possible and to all age group demographics.”

That includes renting to, say, the local gardening club, making it available to seniors, or using the space for classes in art, cooking, yoga or stretching, he said.

Jason Gaudet, St. George’s chief administrative officer for the past three years, said it’s hard to rent the space out with the Y’s after-school child-care program that runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“Even renting the smaller room, there’s always an issue when you have people mixing in with the day-care kids going into the washroom,” he said in an interview. “There’s some logistics there that are always a concern.”

When the kids aren’t there, the space would never get tidied up enough to rent, he added. “A lot of times when they said they’d put their materials away, it doesn’t really get put away. People come in to rent and they complain.”

Council uses the centre the second Monday of every month as a council chamber. “Even then, council started realizing stuff’s not really getting put away,” said Gaudet. “In the background of a council meeting, we have play areas and paintings on the wall and stuff like that. That’s why in the past we never really rented it out.”

The Y could have opted to stay, but council wanted to start recouping some of the cost after three years of free rent, he said. “Then you could say to residents, ‘You may not be able to use it for a birthday party, but the primary user is paying and covering the cost’.”

Gaudet said the $3,500 rent is 25 per cent less than the rate the town would charge for a non-charity group. Built in 2008 at a cost of just over $978,000, the community centre operates on an annual, taxpayer-funded budget of $45,000.

Shilo Boucher, president and chief executive of the YMCA for greater Saint John and Charlotte and Kings counties, said she and her colleagues first learned of the new direction when they met with the new council over the summer. They were giving an overview and discussing opportunities to resume programs halted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our sense was that they had a really different vision for the Magaguadavic Centre and wanted to work with us to find another location,” she said. “They didn’t know if it was a fit for us there.”

A dollar figure didn’t enter the discussion until weeks later. “It was a bit of a surprise for us the amount of rent they wanted us to pay,” she said.

The Y is a not-for-profit organization and can’t afford the steep amount, she said. “It’s a break-even operation. Our big cost is staffing and supplies and food and things to run program.”

The Y has found a new home for the after-school child-care program for the next year at the St. George Elementary School (SGES). The plan is to relocate there as soon as it can get a license to operate in the space.

The school will have only about half the available spots for kids, at 15 compared to 30 at Magaguadavic Place. Pre-COVID, the Y had close to 30 kids enrolled, but the number has fallen during the pandemic. “There may be a gap,” said Boucher. “If we end up with a waitlist, we will try and find other alternatives.”

She said it costs about $300 a month for a parent to register for the program.

The Y won’t be charged rent by SGES, a typical arrangement for the charity. “We love to be in schools,” said Boucher. “It’s safer and easier for kids to walk out of class and come see us.”

The downside is the space is smaller and limits the ability to do summer day camps and other programs, such as pickleball, volleyball and youth leadership programs. Also, if more students enroll at SGES, the Y would be forced to find another spot, said Boucher.

She said the Y wants to keep working with the council. “This is just their direction on what they feel is appropriate for their community,” she said. “The centre is amazing with all these wonderful amenities outdoors. They built it up to be a hub for the community. So we’re a little sad we’re not going to be there.”

The Y’s first $3,500 rent payment was going to kick in Oct. 1. Gaudet said he hasn’t sent an invoice. “Some people say we’re kicking them out. We haven’t told them to vacate the building.”

He said other events held at the community centre over the years, such as wedding receptions, covered little of the yearly operating costs. “A lot was community or recreation events for seniors’ groups or monthly meetings and Girl Guides,” he said. “The value in that is what it brings back to the community.”

Janet Whitman