Construction workers work at the site of the new YMCA facility on the corner of Court Street NE and Cottage Street NE on Tuesday, March 2. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Timothy Sinatra sent out a fundraising appeal late last year to supporters of the YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties he got an unexpected response.

That was a handwritten letter from Kay Holtz, a 96-year-old widow in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who said she was unable to contribute financially. But she wanted Sinatra, the organization’s CEO, to know how much the YMCA meant to her late husband, Roth, who served as camp director in the early 1950s.

“Our memories of his first job in Y work with Gus Moore are very happy ones,” she wrote, referring to the YMCA director at the time. “I hope you reach your goal in providing families in the area with scholarships.”

Sinatra said personal connections like that are key to YMCA’s plans as it begins the long-awaited construction of its new building in downtown Salem and seeks to raise at least $7 million over the next year to complete the effort.

“Everyone's always like, ‘Show me the data that your organization makes an impact,’” Sinatra said. He prefers to turn to stories.

Sinatra took over as CEO of the organization last year from Sam Carroll, inheriting a capital campaign and construction project in the middle of a pandemic and economic downturn.

“This is a tough time to build something, but we don’t want to let this moment in time dictate the next 100 years,” he said.

Demolition was completed about a year ago on the old YMCA building where Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, famously rented a room when he arrived in Oregon in 1969. 

The lot at the corner of Court Street Northeast and Cottage Street Northeast then sat vacant for months.

But behind the fence, site work has finally started on the three-story gym and YMCA headquarters which Sinatra envisions as a community hub to nurture Salem residents from infancy to old age. 

It’s now expected to open in April 2022, he said, about a year behind the schedule YMCA leaders announced in early 2019 after securing a loan to begin work.

Construction has been slowed because shortages of construction materials delayed the delivery of some needed supplies, and Covid cases among subcontractors forced work to stop so workers could quarantine, Sinatra said.

“Now things are back on track and they’re moving,” he said.

Concrete and steel prices have risen, adding to the building’s cost.

Sinatra says he expects the YMCA will need to raise between $7 and $9 million to cover the rest of construction, up from a target of $6 to $7 million last July. 

The organization’s board decided to move forward with construction using a loan to cover some of the costs in order to hit a state deadline for using $12 million lottery bond funds, and to avoid continuing to pay maintenance costs on an aging building.

Sinatra spent his first months on the job crafting a plan for how the YMCA will serve Salem out of its new building, believing a clear vision and compelling story would be key to getting donors on board.

The result is an exhibit upstairs at the Ike Box next door where Sinatra and YMCA board members give small tours to potential donors and influential Salem residents. 

In the hallway, there’s a display of historic photos from the YMCA’s past. A “vision room” where south-facing windows overlook the construction site, giving visitors a place to view the progress on the building’s construction. Conceptual drawings and descriptions of how the YMCA will serve Salem line the walls.

A rendering of the YMCA's new gym and headquarters in downtown Salem by CBTWO Architects (Courtesy/YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties)

The building will house a gym, with a full-size pool, smaller rooms for yoga and cycling classes and a rooftop track where members can jog, or relax and enjoy the view of downtown Salem and the Capitol.

Sinatra is most excited for what that building can make possible. He described events like a senior triathlon, where children cheer as their grandparents compete on the rooftop track, or regular tutoring and job preparation programs for teens run with help from other nonprofit organizations.

A first-floor cafe will give the area a social space, and Sinatra hopes to employ young people aging out of foster care and veterans who will move into the affordable housing project the YMCA is planning to build across the street.

Other fixtures of YMCA programming, like swim lessons, child care for members and classes to help people manage chronic illnesses will be part of the package.

“We don’t care where you’re at. We want to help support you to be your best,” Sinatra said.

The YMCA offers sliding scale memberships and scholarships for programs with a fee, believing nobody should be turned away. 

Sinatra envisions hosting local schools for community nights, where kids can play basketball in the school gym with parents and teachers. That’s something Christy Perry, superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, is excited about.

“Any place we can build spaces for healthy kids, children-family activities, our community will be better and our kids will be better,” she said. “I really was struck and kind of heartened by their vision because it just creates another space in our community where anyone can come for healthy activities.”

Dick Withnell is chairing the capital committee on the YMCA board and said his goal is to raise $6 million by Labor Day.

“We’re getting a lot of momentum on the structure coming up out of the ground,” he said.

He approaches the task with the frankness of a lifelong car salesman and said he tells potential donors that they’re making an investment in Salem’s community, not giving to charity.

“Most of us, we’re gonna die. So what are we going to do between now and then? What’s your legacy going to be, sitting on your butt in Palm Springs?” he said. “I put money into the YMCA because I expect they’re going to change lives.”

A ground floor plan for the YMCA's new gym and headquarters in downtown Salem CBTWO Architects (Courtesy/YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties)A second floor plan for the YMCA's new gym and headquarters in downtown Salem CBTWO Architects (Courtesy/YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties)A third floor plan for the YMCA's new gym and headquarters in downtown Salem CBTWO Architects(Courtesy/YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties)

Correction: This article originally misspelled Gus Moore's name. We regret the error.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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