VYFS makes deal with YMCA to purchase PlaySpace building

Tara McBennett and her son Lief attend one of the parent support groups at PlaySpace. - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Tara McBennett and her son Lief attend one of the parent support groups at PlaySpace.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

PlaySpace, the former YMCA center on the corner of Vashon Highway and Gorsuch Road, is a hub of activity nearly every day of the week.

Most afternoons, mothers gather to discuss the challenges of parenting young children while their toddlers romp in an expansive play area adjacent to them. Downstairs, a popular preschool gathers five days a week. Birthday parties happen on the weekends, and various organizations meet there at night.

Now, this spirited center is about to claim a more secure spot on Vashon.

For the last three years, Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS) has rented the building from the Seattle YMCA. Last week, after months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the two agencies signed a real estate agreement transferring ownership to VYFS.

The Vashon agency will buy the building for $200,000 — a price that recognizes the contribution Islanders made several years ago when they raised a significant portion of the funds needed for the YMCA to purchase the structure. The actual purchase price is $450,000, said Ken Maaz, executive director of VYFS. The Vashon agency, he added, is getting $250,000 in credit for contributions Islanders made a decade ago.

"We have a deal," Maaz said. "I think it's a fair deal."

Those who have been involved with the development of PlaySpace, now the home of a host of programs centered around early childhood development, applauded the news.

"It's the realization of a dream that parents initiated ... years ago," said Lori Means, VYFS's director of family education and support services.

Until PlaySpace was developed, VYFS offered play groups in the basement of the Presbyterian Church, Means said. But the frequency was not nearly enough to meet the needs of Island parents, she noted; and because of the building's many uses, the play area had to be set up and taken down each time.

Parents would often tell the agency they needed more support and a decent facility on Vashon, a place where parents often feel isolated and where the winters can seem long, Means said. For so many years, she added, "we've been holding this dream that we could have this kind of a place for parents and children. It's really exciting. It's the community that made this happen."

The 4,000-square-foot stone and timbered building was constructed in 1972 as a church for the Jehovah's Witnesses. In January 2000, after a successful fundraising campaign led by a group of Island women, the Seattle YMCA purchased the structure for $335,000 and opened up a fitness center and day care at the site.

But neither the day care nor the fitness program was able to attract enough clients to make ends meet. So the YMCA closed first the day care and then, nearly four years ago, the fitness center and, a few months later, rented the vacant space to VYFS for $1 a month.

Since then, VYFS officials have discussed the possibility of buying the building from the YMCA and initiated conversations with the YMCA's leadership. In June, VYFS began a capital campaign — chaired by Islander Pam Jewson — to raise funds for a potential purchase.

But throughout the process, a sticking point was that community contribution from a decade ago and how to value it. Islanders kicked in $260,000 to the purchase of the building in 2000 as well as countless hours of volunteer support helping the Seattle-based agency transform it into a day care and fitness center.

When the YMCA announced it was closing its fitness center and would, upon the sale of the building, return $260,000 to the community, several Islanders cried foul. During the fundraising campaign a decade ago, they said, the YMCA had promised that the building would remain a community asset in perpetuity.

Jewson, who played a leadership role in bringing the YMCA to Vashon in 2000, said she remains frustrated with the YMCA. "I think they partially reneged on their early promises," she said. "We were told ... that if the Y ever pulled out, the building would stay in the community."

Even so, Jewson, like Means, is pleased that the community is about to secure the building.

"The good news is that we're moving forward. We have a legacy that we can be proud of, and we're continuing to meet the mission of serving children and families," she said.

"VYFS is the steward," she added. "But the building belongs to the community. ... I think this is the best possible outcome."

VYFS hopes to close on the transaction in three months, after it has raised enough cash or worked out the details of financing the purchase. So far, the agency has raised $178,000 towards the $200,000 purchase price. But Maaz said that the agency believes it should have $250,000 in place before it takes on ownership, so that it has a healthy reserve fund to address maintenance issues.

The purchase price seems fair, Maaz added. "Where else could we go for $200,000 and get a building that provides us with what we need the way this building does," he said.

Bob Gilbertson, the chief executive officer of the Seattle YMCA, said Thursday that he, too, was happy that the YMCA and VYFS were able to strike a deal. Ideally, he said, the YMCA would have found a way to stay on Vashon. Failing that, this is the best possible outcome, he said.

"It's one thing to leave, liquidate your assets and take off," Gilbertson said. "It's another thing to have a legacy that continues and that provides relevant services."

The YMCA board agreed to the deal, he added, "because we're doing this in a way that perpetuates services to youth and families."

VYFS officials, meanwhile, are already beginning to dream about how the new property — located on an acre of land just north of the town center — might enable them to enhance their programs. The agency is cramped in its current suite of offices near Vashon High School, where service providers jockey for space and where the conference room is about to be turned into an office to help address the agency's needs, Maaz said.

The PlaySpace will continue to act as the agency's center for early childhood development and learning, he said. But at some point, VYFS hopes to expand the structure and have others aspects of its agency centered there.

"We're hoping that this will someday be a campus for VYFS services," Maaz said.

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