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(Rick Hickman / American Press)

(Rick Hickman / American Press)

Notebook: Old YMCA building needs new lease on life

Last Modified: Saturday, February 02, 2013 9:50 PM

By Eric Cormier / American Press

Walking through the Charpentier and downtown districts in the evening is a soul-enriching amenity for Lake Charles residents.

The aesthetically pleasing, century-old architecture, the quiet, and the unexpected moments — like when a pack of raccoons scurry along the sidewalks — assist the art of daily mental decompression.

Just like the raccoons popping up out of nowhere, there is a building you will pass near the downtown Post Office that will surprise and also raise the blood pressure after viewing it.

At 618 Kirby St. stands what the Calcasieu Historic Preservation Society considers one of the most endangered structures in Southwest Louisiana. In case you are new to the city and not familiar with all of the locals’ favorite landmarks, this address is the YMCA’s former home downtown.

In 2005 the facility was closed because of damage caused by Hurricane Rita. Except for a few efforts to get the building refurbished, nothing has been done to ensure it will ever be used daily again.

It is sad that a piece of history — the YMCA opened its doors in 1956 — is sitting vacant.

Brian Vallier, a local businessman and leader of the board that oversees the structure, understands something needs to be done to make it viable again. He contends that patience is governing his thoughts on the building’s future. Last year, a decision was made that might generate some interest, he said.

“It is not the YMCA anymore. There was not enough support for the YMCA. The YMCA’s mission can continue but with another name, and it was changed to the Kirby St. Center for Community Enrichment,” he said.

A name change — the organization is still a nonprofit — is a practical way to rebrand a group or business, but that alone will not protect the former YMCA from negative public opinion, especially since the structure is boarded up.

Vallier has given tours of the building in an attempt to let certain leaders in local business and government see what is behind the walls.

“Just last week four engineers toured and said the building was in good condition,” Vallier said. “There are no leaks, the roof is sound and it is in good condition. We’re talking about a building that is 100 percent masonry. It’s solid.”

OK. But if the building is usable, why has no decision been made about its future?

In Vallier’s mind, the goal is to find another nonprofit organization to join forces with his to convert the building into a cultural center. Understand, he has about six years of available funds to pay the bills and keep the grass cut, so time is of no consequence.

Vallier told the American Press last year that the building was appraised for $500,000 and that as of 2010, the board had $166,347 in net assets.

But when a person looks at a big building, which has a swimming pool, pipes and hard walls and floors inside, the thought of an accident happening is something to consider. The building was boarded up after people were found inside and thieves had stolen numerous items out of it.

Liability due to an accident in a lawsuit-happy society is something I wonder if the board of directors — which may or may not have directors and officers liability — are considering. Every month that concern is raised by a City Council member regarding properties all over town. Just boarding up a structure and doing the bare minimum to keep it from being officially labeled as a public nuisance or safety hazard by an inspector is not enough. And the public should push the nonprofit to move quicker, especially since the public is footing the bill through our taxes for the beautification of the lakefront and downtown. If we do not want run-down houses next to us, why should a a shuttered building be tolerated close to a sparkling downtown?

Vallier said the organization has a responsibility to keep the vision that the original YMCA founders had when the agency opened decades ago.

How long should money — donated or possibly obtained through an insurance payment — be used to keep a building shuttered?

Seven years have passed since the building was closed. Who benefits from this situation?

I have served on a board of directors before. Occasionally, liability issues were brought up and my eyebrows were raised. I quickly realized the need for more insurance protection.

Another question to consider is, has anyone offered to buy the building and get it off the backs of Vallier’s group?

That would absolve Vallier of potential legal or fiscal troubles.

If potential buyers were turned down because they do not share Vallier’s vision, is that responsible?

“But I do feel much better about the direction we’re headed with instead of liquidating the property,” he said. “There is a feeling of energy.”

Who knows if or when a big announcement will be made about the property.

Vallier communicates with City Hall about developments — which helps keep the red demolition tag off the plywood on the front door.

So, for the moment, the former YMCA is the one spot that will make the eyes hurt and blood boil on what is otherwise a wonderful walking path.

Enough is enough, though.

People with concerns or suggestions about the building can call Vallier at 337-437-7633.

Posted By: Steve A On: 2/4/2013

Title: YMCA

I grew up on 5th St, two houses off of Bank..........In the late 60's, I would go to the YMCA on saturday afternoon to watch the monster flicks in the TV-Game Room...........I will never forget those afternoons watching the "Creature from the Black Lagoon"...........Unfortunetly my family and I moved to CENLA in the early 70's............Now I'm back in Lake Charles and it pains me evertime I drive down Kirby.

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