Committee eyes partnership with YMCA for Halliwell property

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Officials from the YMCA of Pawtucket met with members of the Halliwell Review Committee this week to discuss a potential partnership, and to look at the possibility of bringing services the organization offers to the North Smithfield property.

The northern Rhode Island division of the larger national organization already has branches in Pawtucket, Lincoln, Coventry and Woonsocket, and began the informal conversation with the North Smithfield group this week, noting that the types of programs and services they offer vary by community.

“North Smithfield is already in our service area,” said Chief Operations Officer Jeanine Achin. “Our present location in Woonsocket is kind of a difficult location. It’s kind of in the middle of the city. There’s no parking.”

“We would look at this as an extension of what we’re already doing in the area,” Achin said.

The meeting was initiated by Halliwell Committee member Bob Meo, who contacted the organization to see if the YMCA could help with plans to utilize the former school lot. After collecting feedback from the public, the volunteer Halliwell board – tasked with spearheading the plan for uses of the 32-acre property – is now focusing discussion on creating, “some type,” of community center, with space potentially dedicated to both seniors, and the public at large.

How the YMCA could play a role, Achin said, depends mostly on what the community wants and needs.

“We really exist to serve the community,” Achin said. “Our goals and programs are based on three things: healthy living, youth development and social responsibility.”

Achin said the organization operates under many different models, owning some of the buildings it occupies and leasing others. Services could supplement town-run programs, and include child care, exercise classes and sports; work side-by-side with a dedicated senior center and community meeting rooms; or operate on a smaller scale.

“It just really depends on what everybody can afford,” Achin said. “Ys across the nation are fairly flexible.”

One thing that’s pretty standard at all YMCA facilites, Achin noted, is a pool.

“That is generally a pretty important part of a YMCA,” she said.

Committee member Stephen Corriveau noted that he would want to see specific advantages for North Smithfield residents above and beyond possible YMCA membership – which is open to everyone.

“What I wouldn’t want is for us to potentially go down a road like this where the town residents don’t get an added value benefit,” Corriveau said. “As a community member, you want to feel that at least to some degree, it’s your own thing.”

The groups discussed possibilities for a multi-use facility inclusive of seniors and youth, and of separate buildings that co-exist with complementary uses.

“We’re the largest child care provider in the state of Rhode Island,” explained YMCA Chief Executive Officer Charles Clifford.

Clifford noted that often, his organization is called in after a town attempts to run its own programs.

“They’ll try for a few years then say, ‘we’re not doing this very well, could you come in and run this?” Clifford said. “We like to work together with recreation departments.”

“We kind of have it down to a science,” said Achin.

Committee member Anthony Guertin noted that in North Smithfield, “youth sports are very represented.”

“Then, they get out of high school and basically, there’s been nothing for a long time,” Guertin said. “The opportunities for everything beyond youth are just tremendous. As far as a selling point to the community of North Smithfield, to me, that’s it: to take what we have and make it better.”

Corriveau asked if the town would potentially be able to utilize the organization’s resources for tasks such as grant writing.

“If a partnership were to be viable, we would probably lean on you, too, for a portion of funding to come from grants,” Corriveau said.

While the talks were only preliminary, YMCA officials delivered many positive answers regarding such a future partnership. No votes were taken at the meeting, but conversations seem on track to move forward.

Committee member Christopher Simpkins noted that much of what residents seem to be looking for at Halliwell would be difficult for the town to run without such experience and staffing.

“They want a lot of services that we essentially would be reinventing the wheel to offer,” Simpkins said.

“I think this is a great opportunity,” Simpkins added. “Obviously, there are a lot of things to consider and work out.”

“It looks to me like there is an opportunity for people who aren’t afraid to think outside the box,” said Halliwell Chairman Jeffrey Porter, thanking YMCA officials for the visit. “This was very helpful to us to kind of guide where we go in the future.”

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