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Memories help keep center alive

TribTown • Volunteers offer time, money to renew former YMCA
by: JIM CLARK, Parents watch as their children take part in a swimming program at the pool at the Northeast Community Center. When the YMCA announced three years ago that it would close the building, community members stepped up to save the center.

As he watches the kids splashing in the indoor swimming pool in front of him, Don Waggoner remembers one of his first forays into this very pool.

He was 7 years old, trying to swim the length of the pool. And then things went sort of blank, Waggoner says. Next thing he remembers, he's lying on the edge of the pool, looking over at the lifeguard.

'The lifeguard had fished me out,' Waggoner says, smiling, as he watches kids learning their sidestrokes at the Northeast Community Center's pool.

That was 65 years ago.

The pool is still around. And - after some difficult times times over the past few years - so is this community and athletic center.

So is Don Waggoner, a retired business owner and executive and now the unpaid executive director of the center. He's among a number of people who've struggled the past few years but actually seem to have saved this place.

A bit more than three years ago, officials with the YMCA, which had operated the Northeast Portland pool and center since it opened in 1925, announced that the YMCA would be closing the building. The officials said the then-Northeast Portland YMCA was losing $50,000 annually, was losing members, and needed $7 million in renovations.

The YMCA had other money problems, in part created by a roof collapse in early 2004 over the pool at its Southwest Portland facility.

But that's when a bunch of people from throughout Northeast Portland - and others who had grown up using the center and its swimming pool - said that, with the Y's help or without it, they would keep the center alive.

Dan Dolan, president of A-Boy Electric and Plumbing and a 20-year member of the center, bought the building, near the corner of Northeast 38th Avenue and Broadway, from the YMCA in February 2005 for $1.2 million. Dolan then turned the center over to a nonprofit established to operate it and keep it in business.

During the next three years, the nonprofit, with help from volunteers and some large financial contributions from individuals, has renovated a building that had seemed almost ready to fall down.

Linda Rasmussen, president of the nonprofit's board and a member of the center since before the YMCA sold it, said a conference room on the building's second floor was 'lovingly called the 'rancid room.' If you were in it, it rained on you,' she said.

Waggoner said: 'This was not a real attractive building. It looked a little bit shopworn.'

Dolan sold the building to the nonprofit last year for the same amount he bought it for, Waggoner said. And the nonprofit finished the final renovations - made on essentially every room in the building's 15,000 square feet - early this year.

'It's been amazing,' Rasmussen said. 'We've been in constant flux. And many times the flux became chaos, and the members have been amazing throughout.

'They've been patient, and we've really made an effort to include the membership in all the decisions.'

Waggoner said there now are about 1,700 members at the Northeast Community Center, who represent about 900 households. (Rasmussen estimates about four in five members were members of the former YMCA center.)

Waggoner said he believes the center's current membership is about the level it was at the YMCA center when it closed. But he and other center leaders hope a number of new programs - from tap dancing to ballet to a new after-school athletic activities class for children - can help the center increase its membership.

But competition is fierce - including from a private 24 Hour Fitness center that opened just a few blocks away at about the time Dolan bought the building.

'There are a lot of fitness organizations between here and the Lloyd Center,' Waggoner said. 'So you have to have a niche. And our niche is families.'

Georgia Leupold Marshall, who is Waggoner's sister-in-law and who also remembers using the center as a child, made a large financial contribution to the center's renovations - although she doesn't say how much.

'I'm so impressed with what they've done,' she said. 'It's so much better than what it was.'

Rasmussen said the center is what it is because of the financial contributors, and because of hundreds of volunteers who have helped to work on the building on weekends and weeknights.

'We could not have made it without either group, and we're grateful to them,' she said.

They also wouldn't have made it without a bunch of people remembering their long history at the center - and rejecting the idea that the YMCA would simply let it die.

People said to one another, Rasmussen said, that 'they're not going to take it away from us - just 'cause they need the money on the west side.'

The building is still hardly fancy and new, she says. 'It's just got history. It's got charm, its own creaks and foibles. But it makes it real. It makes it vibrant.'

And, maybe, it now has a long future.

'I don't think it will ever be smooth sailing,' Rasmussen says. 'But it might be less bumpy.'

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