The Y bounces racquetball out

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Racquetball at The Riverdale Y is on its last serve. A dozen or so dedicated players learned in April that the Arlington Avenue facility will repurpose the spacious court into what administrators believe will be a more lucrative use.

“I’ve got significant health problems. I’m scared of what will happen to me,” avid racquetball player Norm Wechsler said. “I’m not the kind who goes to the gym and lifts a bunch of weights. That’s not what I find enjoyable. I find racquetball enjoyable, and I won’t get the same exercise without playing three days a week.”

He found a physical and social outlet at The Y with a group of like-minded folks. They’d meet up for a match, chew the fat about life after retirement, and head home with plans to come back in a couple of days.

But now the players have to find a new home. It was a decision Riverdale Y’s chief executive Deann Forman hated to make.

“We knew this would be upsetting for the people who really love racquetball and rely on it for all the physical and social benefits,” Forman said. “So we wrote them a letter and told them why we’re going to be making these changes this summer.”

Over the last two years, The Y’s operating expenses have skyrocketed. State minimum wage jumped from $11.10 to $15 in January, triggering a domino effect of pay increases for all The Y’s employees.

While The Y supports a living wage, the new law punched a gaping hole into its budget. Fees and tuition cover only about 70 percent of operating costs, Foreman said.

Administrators cut expenses as much as they could without affecting services, but a significant deficit remains.

“We’re receiving assistance from some other philanthropic entities to remain solvent right now,” she said, “but I need to figure out a way to raise our revenue by a minimum of $250,000 a year just to keep the budget balanced, just to keep the doors open and the lights on.”

Forman began looking for ways to bring in more revenue. Racquetball generates about $20,000 for The Y annually, according to the administration’s analysis. Repurposing the space to a functional training studio could bring in more than $100,000.

It wouldn’t solve all their money problems, but that increase would be a huge help.

“If my job is to keep the doors open and the lights on and continue to serve the full community, I have no choice but to figure out all the places where I can increase our revenue,” Forman said. And the racquetball court “is an obvious place.”

The sport was born in a Greenwich, Connecticut, YMCA in 1950 by Joe Sobek, devising a game resembling handball and squash. Gameplay is fast. Two players in an enclosed court hit a hollow rubber ball with stringed racquets to control the number of bounces off the forward and side walls.

Racquetball enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity during the 1980s as a fitness trend. It became especially popular in urban gyms and community centers because each day several sets of health-conscious office workers could run themselves ragged in a compact 20-by-40-foot court.

But like all trends, racquetball’s ubiquitous appeal faded. Fewer new players are joining the sport, leaving the ones who began playing in racquetball’s heyday. Even with about 15 enthusiastic regular players, The Y’s court is empty seemingly more often than not.

“I’ve played racquetball for about 45 years, and I’ve played in other places where they’ve actually discontinued the particular option for us to use,” Y member Rafael Torres said. “But The Y does more than just sports. It does a lot of different things, and it’s an important part of the community, so I understand what they’re doing. I don’t hold any grudges.”

Rumors the racquetball court was on the chopping block floated for years, Torres said. When Forman gave a presentation to players at The Y about the administration’s decision earlier this month, Torres appreciated her candor.

“This is the first time someone’s actually offered to compensate us,” Torres said. “They offered us six months of free membership, and I think that’s a great thing.”

The Y also offered membership at Lehman College’s fitness center for use of its racquetball courts. It’s an option truly passionate players may pursue, but members of the old gang may pass on.

“I used to live in Riverdale for years, but now I work in Westchester,” Y member Tim DeRentis said. “I would still go to The Y for the camaraderie.

“But Lehman’s a bit far and I don’t know that the group will start going there. (This change) will be a little bittersweet, I guess you’d say, because most of us have been members for a long time, and we enjoyed that camaraderie.”

Ultimately, The Y had little other choice, he said. Without some budgetary fix, The Y can’t stay open and the community programs for children, youth and seniors would disappear with it.

“So, we understand. Everyone’s a little bummed out, but we understand at the same time. The Y has been great,” DeRentis said. “It’s a business decision. We understand that part.”

Forman said she also knows how this affects members.

“I really, truly understand the anguish that this is causing people for whom racquetball was what they did. That was their only reason for being here was racquetball,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can while also fulfilling our fiduciary obligation to make sure that we can work toward a balanced budget.”

The Riverdale Y offers universal pre-K classes funded by the city. The community development department funds a homework help program for students. The city also partially funds The Y’s senior citizen center.

The functional training studio replacing the courts will be used for a variety of classes. It will accommodate kickboxing for adults, stretching and strength training for seniors, and karate for children.

Meanwhile, Forman and her staff are developing new programs and fundraisers to increase revenue. The Y also continues to rely on philanthropic donations and fundraising events, like the Riverdale Run — a charity race held this year on May 19 — that directly benefits The Y’s programs.

“By making this change, it’s giving us the opportunity to create something brand new for a whole new audience,” Forman said. “People of all ages, young and old, will be able to use this new studio.”

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