Citizen fight to save the St. Catharines YMCA called ‘hopeless’
St. Catharines YMCA

Citizen fight to save the St. Catharines YMCA called ‘hopeless’

More than two years ago, Uwe Natho learned the fate of the Walker Family YMCA in St. Catharines the same way as everybody else, he read it in the media. There had been no warnings or indications that closing the facility was even being considered.

Natho says when he first read the news he did not believe it.

Through all the back and forth since, involving the YMCA, City Hall and Atria Development Corporation, which eventually bought the building, Natho, Phil Baronoski and their community group—formed to save the Y—have become frustrated with the Niagara Region YMCA’s lack of willingness to consider alternatives to selling the Walker Building. “They would not listen to any alternatives!” the group wrote in a recent email to City Council. Since the facility was built with donations received from the community, the community group says the YMCA had an obligation to consult with local stakeholders before taking the drastic action to sell the building without consulting the public or its members. They call the YMCA’s “disregard for their legacy in St. Catharines” insulting. 

It was March 10, 2021 and the news caught an entire community off-guard. Natho and his wife had been members since shortly after moving to St. Catharines in 2004 when their daughter, who gushed about the facility and the numerous programs offered, convinced them to join. Natho was an avid squash player and his wife enjoyed using the pool to swim laps. But it went beyond that. 

When asked why he decided to fight to save the YMCA he said it was so much “more than a recreation centre, it was a true Community Centre”, a place where they met their closest friends, “a place that provided for people who needed the facilities for health reasons and provided financial assistance for others”. Six weeks after the announcement Natho had become one of the principal organizers of a community group to help prevent the closure of the facility. Speaking to City Council on April 26, 2021 he closed by stating, “I can play squash anywhere, but what about those people who are dependent on the YMCA”.

Phil Baranoski and Uwe Natho at the entrance to the YMCA they have tried to save.

(Ed Smith/The Pointer)


Before the end of that Council meeting City staff would be directed by a motion to work with Natho in his role as one of the leaders of the “Save the St. Catharines Y Campaign”, in hopes of finding a way to prevent the closure of this beloved community asset.   

Two-and-a-half-years later and after countless hours of building community support and working with all stakeholders, including the building's new owners, Natho has called the situation “hopeless”. On October 22 he sent an email to City Council and his group of approximately 100 followers, informing them of Mayor Mat Siscoe’s repeated lack of response to his communications which led him to conclude there is simply no political will within City Hall to save the YMCA. Natho thanked his supporters and announced they would receive no further updates from him, saying there are “too many forces against us”.

His resigned tone represents the growing belief that the Walker Family YMCA facility in St. Catharines will never again open its doors to the public. Despite the work of the numerous citizens who formed around Natho and fellow leader Phil Baranoski they now feel there is no way forward in their efforts to save the YMCA. 


A rendering of how the YMCA building could be incorporated into a future urban design for St. Catharines. 


But how did we get to this point? How did  an institution as venerable as the YMCA end up selling a community crown jewel to developers?

St. Catharines has long recognized the importance of the YMCA’s facilities and programs to the social fabric of the community. Although not owned by the City, its buildings and programs figure prominently in the official recreational master plan. From 2017-2021 the City’s deputy CAO (now CAO), David Oakes, occupied a seat on the Board of the YMCA. But the drastic turn of events still somehow happened without public engagement or any effort to come up with an alternative plan forward that would allow the cherished organization to keep its doors open. The loss of this facility will likely cost taxpayers $30-$40 million to replace, as thousands of users who relied on the multitude of services offered by the Y will now have to look elsewhere.   

According to data published by Zoocasa, St. Catharines already had one of the highest municipal tax rates in Ontario (and that was before an alarming, unexpected hike of 10.5 percent earlier this year) and of the 35 municipalities tracked in 2022, only six had higher taxes than St. Catharines. Infamously in May the City then implemented a retroactive increase of 10.51% to its municipal taxes, assuring its spot among the highest taxed places to live and do business in the province. Despite these record-high taxes, the City has been closing recreational facilities and reducing services. In the past three years approximately half of its adult swimming facilities have been shuttered. St. Catharines now has one year round water facility for a population of 140,000, by comparison nearby Hamilton has 18 year round facilities for a population of 580,000.

Alongside the closure of public swimming facilities the City has reduced the hours of its popular beaches during summer months. Citizens must now clear the beaches by 9 pm, preventing activities that used to be common later in the evening, including sandy sunset strolls along the waterfront.

The YMCA provided an alternative to those seeking exercise and some recreation in a modern facility with some of the best equipment in the city. When it opened in the mid-90’s it boasted year round facilities for swimming, basketball/volleyball, racquet sports, weight training and other forms of indoor fitness, including a track. The programs it offered were considered vital to any community and included subsidized day care, child and youth recreation programs, an early-years centre, accessibility for people with disabilities and other community benefits.


The St. Catharines YMCA featured a modern pool and well maintained equipment, but the building's doors are now closed, as the beloved recreation facility sits dormant.



The need for the Walker Family YMCA seemed evident.

It was well looked after and described as “meticulously maintained”. The sudden announcement of its closure and subsequent listing of the property for sale was a shock to the community. It seemed City Hall was willing to intervene and by August of 2021, Council, partially informed by the work of Natho and his Save the Y group, passed a motion directing mayor Walter Sendzik to immediately advise the YMCA board of the City’s “serious interest” in investing in the YMCA in order to keep it open and serving the public. City staff was directed to provide Council with options for partnership, investment in, or purchase of the facility.  

The YMCA cited declining membership and budgetary deficits as reasons for closing its doors.  Six weeks after the initial announcement its board issued a letter to Natho explaining that “despite numerous attempts over the past five years to trim costs and innovate”, the competition was too great. The letter said the YMCA has “found it challenging to remain viable within this evolving sector… the current pandemic has amplified the problems and there is no end in sight”.

Records show that while membership had dropped to a low of 5,500 in 2018/19, it climbed to 5,915 the following year before the pandemic forced a pause in programs. A cumulative five-year deficit of just over $6 million was reported. But the 2021 financial statement reported a revenue surplus for the year in excess of $1.1 million, indicating a move in the right direction. 

But within weeks of the announced closure in March of 2021 the board had listed the site with a broker and was accepting closed bids. Undeterred, the  Save the Y movement, led by Natho and Baronoski, worked to provide the board and the City with viable options to avoid permanent closure. They consulted lawyers, attended meetings with City staff, municipal councillors, YMCA board members, they prepared reports and suggestions, developed a working relationship with the Atria Development Corp, the building's new owners, they asked the right questions and rallied hundreds to their cause. All focussed on finding the solution that would allow for the Y’s survival. 

But frustration was growing after no advance notice was provided and no dialogue with the membership was initiated. There was a mounting sense among the leadership of Save the Y that the City was not on the group’s side.

In a report to Council on August 9, 2021 Natho stated that initial dialogue with the YMCA to explore possible partnerships had been “non-committal”. By mid-June the Y had halted all dialogue in order to evaluate the bids received from private interests. The talks restarted briefly in July, only to be permanently halted a week later by the YMCA, after the board explained they were in negotiations with a possible buyer and therefore did not want to be seen as pursuing any other option. 

Between the actions of the developer, the YMCA board and City council there was a growing sense by Save the Y that its work was up against a competing agenda. The YMCA had a charitable mission to provide “leadership and opportunities for people and their community to grow in spirit, mind, and body”, and though it was operating at an annual deficit it was not a large one.  

If the City was serious about saving the Y it would be an inexpensive partnership compared to the alternative of building its own major recreation centre. 

Questions still linger about the YMCA Board and its stated values used to direct decision making, which highlight “thought and conduct that distinguish right from wrong” and provide the “foundation for decision making”.

Other issues arose around the board’s conduct, the lack of public notice and engagement and how the initial direction by City Council suddenly seemed to get swept aside.

In January of 2022 Atria was announced as the new owner of the building and initially expressed a keenness to work with the YMCA to “enhance the community in St. Catharines”. Mike Watt, then Chair of the YMCA board, seemed to agree when he stated there was “opportunity for us to explore the possibility of future collaboration and program delivery”.  Reportedly, the YMCA had been in discussions with the City throughout the sales process and mayor Sendzik, at the time, called the situation a “win-win for the community”.

Only a few months later all of this initial optimism would start to fade. By late May of the same year the YMCA unveiled its new strategic plan and the Walker Family facility would not be included in any future vision. The YMCA abruptly announced its plan to vacate the building by the end of May, choosing to focus instead on what it called “smaller satellite locations that will cater to specific neighbourhood needs”.

Natho then authored a letter to City Council which indicated a YMCA committee heard the group’s proposal for saving the Y, did not ask any questions, then closed the meeting with one member stating, “I don’t care what they say, we are selling”. The letter to Council noted that “After 12 months it became obvious that the YMCA did not want to reach any agreement (for saving the facility) except getting money from the sale and then sitting back and doing a wait and see”. The letter closes by thanking Council and expressing optimism that the City was communicating directly with Atria.

Natho and Baronaski subsequently decided that with a municipal election just around the corner in the fall of 2022, their best move was to ensure all mayoral candidates were aware of the importance of the YMCA. They met with the contenders after mayor Sendzik announced he would not seek reelection, as well as councillor candidates, to educate them on the issues involving the YMCA and the importance of working together to save it.

In their initial email to the newly elected Mayor (Mat Siscoe) they sought his guidance on their future role, wanting clarity about continuing to work as a City-appointed liaison, or becoming members of the City’s Recreation Planning Committee. Natho and Baronoski were eager to pick up where they had left off in their fight to save the Y by helping directly inform elected officials about what had unfolded over the last couple years, with details of the options to keep the facility open.

Two months later in an email to all members of the newly elected Council, Natho expressed his opinion that “no tangible progress is being made”. It was January 2023 and the Save the Y felt that without a focussed effort by the City there was a very real risk the YMCA might never again open its doors.  

The group addressed the community services gap that was evident since the facility’s closure. In early February during a face-to-face meeting with the mayor and Councillor Bruce Williamson a path forward was identified and as a result Council passed a motion at their next meeting that read in part “staff be directed to contact Atria to request that they submit a partnership proposal for Council’s consideration”.

The YMCA's doors are closed and the building is up for sale.

(Ed Smith/The Pointer)


After several months of what the mayor termed a “back and forth” a formal proposal was received by the City from Atria. The offer was summarily rejected by Council in a closed door meeting in October.

Responding to an inquiry from The Pointer Mayor Siscoe released a statement in which he details his projected costs to run the facility and its expected implications for higher taxes. The mayor’s statement provides his estimates on the expenses that would be incurred to keep the facility open but does not seem to account for any income that might be generated by the facility, making it difficult to assess the true costs. Siscoe’s statement does not acknowledge or estimate the cost to the City to replace the services offered by the YMCA.

“After several months of back-and-forth, Atria presented a formal proposal to City staff and Council,” Siscoe wrote in his December 5 statement. “While I cannot comment publicly on the contents of the Atria proposal, I can say that the known lease costs and the costs associated with programming the facility would have amounted to more than $5.5 million annually. This cost would have amounted to an almost 4.7% property tax increase by itself.”

The vast majority of this figure would be recouped through membership and special program fees. It’s unclear why Siscoe did not include user revenues in his statement, instead suggesting taxpayers would have to cover the costs (if user fees were included in the calculation, he failed to mention this in the statement).

“The decision to not proceed was supported by Council 11-1 on October 16th , 2023.”

In a statement to the Pointer on Dec 8, Atria expressed their understanding of the importance of the facility to the community and stressed its proposal to the City did include an offer to make the necessary repairs to the facility. Atria says it asked for $1.67 million per year for the facility.  A sum that, according to the company, represented mortgage and carrying costs with no profit built in. Its statement explains that while a new facility may be expected to cost $60-$100 million, under Atria’s proposal the City would keep the current facility in operation and would be able to offset many of the costs through membership and program fees. Atria also says it offered to sell the entire property to the City but “no offer was received”.

Atria’s statement concludes with a hope that “our proposal will be further considered by Council” and expresses a willingness to “come back to the table if the city has a genuine interest in acquiring or leasing this property”.  

The YMCA washed its hands and sold the property in a rushed process without consulting the membership. Mayor Siscoe has indicated the City will no longer continue the process to rescue the facility and only Atria, the developer who now owns the facility, is expressing a willingness to continue to seek solutions.

Uwe Natho and Phil Baronoski understand Atria is a corporation trying to make a profit, and appreciate the willingness to find a solution that works for everyone. But they feel Atria has been pulled into the difficulties of dealing with the City’s government bureaucracy. Managing talks with City staff, understanding the politics being played in the background and how to navigate the overall “quagmire” that is the City of St. Catharines is a tall task for any private sector partner. They say “the ultimate price will be paid by the thousands of former members and citizens who no longer avail themselves of the services offered. Not to mention the immense expense that will eventually be borne by the taxpayer when (not if) the City decides to build a Community Recreation Centre that St. Catharines desperately needs.”



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