Butler Street YMCA faces severe financial crisis, possible reorganization

The Butler Street YMCA, an iconic fixture in the Atlanta community, is facing a major financial hurdle that could force it to reorganize or, worse, close.

"We've struggled through it and done a number of things, but now we're at the point where we have to take a look at reorganizing," said Rebecca Johnson, a member of the board. "We're still looking at options, but we do plan to come back. I don't know about closing. That certainly is an option. Everything is an option."

Johnson said the Butler Street YMCA, like other nonprofits, has struggled through the recession as contributions fell.

For instance, Johnson estimated that funding from the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta fell from about $150,000 to $50,000 or $60,000. And it could be lower than that. The United Way's website says the Butler Street YMCA received $41,000 in Community Impact Funds during the current fiscal year. The decrease in United Way funding was likely because of changes in the grant application process where programs had to show measurable impact in the focus areas of education, income, health and homelessness.

"During this application process, we had about 173 agencies that submitted applications, and 124 were granted dollars," said United Way spokesman David Graves. "They just didn't compete as well in the application process."

In the past year, the Butler Street YMCA, which has three locations including its main site at 22 Jesse Hill Jr. Drive, has been forced to lay off about 22 staffers. Between 15 and 20 remain.

"If we close, we don't intend to close permanently," Johnson said. "It would be a sad day to ever lose the Butler Street Y. We are doing everything we can not to let it go."

The Butler Street YMCA played an important role in the social fabric of black Atlanta. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan spent part of their youth there. For many years, it was the only YMCA that black residents could join in metro Atlanta.

For years, it sponsored the Hungry Club Forum, a lunch program that brought together the city's black civic and business movers and shakers. Johnson said there has not been a Hungry Club Forum for several months.

Quatavians Williams, 28, has been coming to the Butler Street YMCA since he was 12. Williams said coming to the Butler Street YMCA kept him from getting into trouble.

"I had no place to go to play ball," said Williams, who attends college and works at a McDonald's restaurant downtown. "It kept me out of trouble" and still does. "It helped me a lot ... I never been locked up because I came here. Coming here kept my mind positive. "

If that YMCA closed down, "we wouldn't have a place to go."

Board member Jacqueline Pollard, vice president for institutional advancement at Morris Brown College, said the Butler Street YMCA has faced financial challenges before.  "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, and I don't think closing or bankruptcy is an option," she said. "It's being considered, but it's nothing I would vote for. I think we have a legacy that people need to maintain."

She said there is some difference of opinion between longtime board members and those who are relative newcomers on how to move forward, and there's been some "misjudgment" in how much revenue and participation some programs could generate. "Financially, the numbers just aren't there."

Board member William "Sonny" Walker is also against closing. In the past, he said, churches would have Butler Street Sunday fundraisers, and radio stations would do telethons to help.

"If our forefathers who went through the Depression, didn't have corporate jobs or mammoth salaries could keep the Butler Street YMCA programs going, somehow we should be able to sustain them as well," he said. "We have challenges. Butler Street has always had challenges, but we found a way to meet them."

Staff photographer Jason Getz contributed to this article.