Construction continues at the site of the new downtown YMCA in Salem on Friday, July 9, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Tim Sinatra learned dozens of Salem child care providers closed their doors permanently in 2020, he wanted to help.

Sinatra, CEO of the Family YMCA of Marion & Polk Counties, read a Portland State University report in April about the pandemic’s negative impact on early childhood programs. His mind immediately went to the new YMCA headquarters currently under construction in downtown Salem.

“I was like, ‘Wow, maybe we need to step back into early childhood development,’” Sinatra said.

With $4 million in new funding from the Oregon Legislature, approved near the end of the 2021 session, Sinatra was able to retool the plans for the new building to dedicate most of the first floor to classrooms.

The YMCA now intends to offer a preschool and child care program when the building opens in the spring of 2022. About 40 kids, ages three to five, will be split between two classes. In the morning, they’ll be taught a preschool curriculum, Sinatra said. Afternoons will be spent on social and hands-on activities, taking advantage of the YMCA’s fitness facilities and pool.

Another room on the building’s first floor will offer drop-in child care for up to two hours while parents work out or attend other programs at the YMCA.

“We just knew this was the right thing to do because of that report,” Sinatra said.

It’s a change in line with the YMCA’s roots, Sinatra said. The nonprofit was at one time one of the largest child care providers in Oregon and was among the first in Salem to offer all-day preschool in the 1970s, Sinatra wrote in an April 29 letter to legislators.

But Sinatra said those efforts have shrunk in recent years because of rising costs and regulations, as well as the more recent upheaval of constructing a new building. The YMCA offers child care and summer camps mostly focused on school-age kids and teens. It hasn't had a preschool program in Salem for decades, Sinatra said.

The 2021 legislative funding is the third major state investment in the YMCA’s long-awaited reconstruction. In 2017, legislators approved $12 million in lottery bonds toward the project, and another $4 million in bonds in 2019.

That makes the state the primary funder of the new facility, which Sinatra said is now expected to cost $27.5 million - an increase driven by the modifications to the original plan and the rising cost of construction materials in the past year.

YMCA leaders in 2018 said they were planning a $26.5 million facility, then scaled back their plans to a $20.5 million building by early 2019 when early fundraising efforts weren’t as successful as hoped. Since then, the project cost has fluctuated several times as state funds have materialized and plans have been modified.

The nonprofit has raised about 72% of money toward the cost and will launch a final fundraising push in September, with hopes of finishing in early 2022, Sinatra said.

The project has been helped by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, whose personal connection to the YMCA is a well known bit of Salem lore. In 1969, Courtney arrived in Salem from the east coast, knowing nothing about Oregon, and took a room at the original YMCA building on Center Street. He lived there for several years and has been a member since.

Courtney said because of that connection, YMCA leaders keep him apprised of their progress on construction and fundraising. In late April, he learned about the plans to offer child care.

“They called me up and told me this because I'm monitoring the Y all the time. And they didn't know it but immediately after I got off the call, I put in the request for four million dollars to cover that,” Courtney said.

To make space for the classrooms, Sinatra said the YMCA shrunk its plans for a community cafe on the ground floor of the building.

A smaller space will still offer fresh salads and other healthy options, he said.

He said the cost of running the child care programs would be about $300,000 for the first year of operations. The YMCA intends to run them as a pilot program for two years and will then look at expanding child care to other sites in the Salem area.

“It becomes a great starting point, but this allows us to solidify our efforts in early childhood development and then immediately expand,” Sinatra said.

Construction crews began raising walls on the new building Monday, and Sinatra said the project remains on track for completion in April 2022. Child care could begin as early as May, Sinatra said.

“We want to get going right away,” he said.

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

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