Scott Berg was certainly no stranger to the Greater Springfield YMCA when he walked through the doors of its Chestnut Street facility that day in January, his first as president and CEO.
In fact, one could make a strong argument that no one knew this organization, launched nearly a full decade before the first shots were fired during the Civil War — not to mention the myriad challenges it was now facing — better than he did.
Indeed, he first started working at the facility more than 20 years ago, when then-director Steve Clay tapped him to be senior program director of the organization’s youth and camping services. He would go on to play the lead role in the development and chartering of the Scantic Valley branch of the Springfield Y in Wilbraham, and then direct all aspects of a $6.5 million capital campaign to build a home for that branch and renovate other YMCA facilities.
And after he left the Y’s employ to pursue other career opportunities, including key development roles at both Springfield College and Western New England University, he remained involved with the organization, especially as a long-time board member.
So he certainly knew his way around the Chestnut Street offices when he arrived in January as successor to Kirk Smith — especially the route to a small conference room of sorts that he fashioned out of an old administrative office that, decades earlier, had served as what amounted to the front desk when the Y operated a hotel-like operation on its upper floors.
“I knew we needed a better place to have meetings — a quiet place where we could brainstorm,” said Berg of his small-scale renovation project.
And there has been quite a bit of that brainstorming over his proverbial first 100 or so days in office. Meetings in that new conference room have involved everything from the difficult but necessary decision to shut down the branch the Y opened in Agawam only 18 months ago due to membership levels far below those projected, to a desperately needed refinancing of the Y’s debt — a deal negotiated with a half-dozen area financial institutions led by Monson Savings Bank, to the ongoing saga involving the Dunbar Community Center.
“I came into this with my eyes wide open,” Berg said of his career decision, noting that these are some of the more challenging times this organization has seen in its long history.
They are in many ways similar to the perilous financial straits the Y maneuvered through during his time in the mid-’90s. What enabled the organization to navigate that whitewater, he explained, was a combination of imagination, determination, and the ability to both forge new partnerships with the broad community the Y serves and connect people with the institution. And he expects that same formula will propel the Springfield institution to better, far more solid footing.
“What I want to do with the team is address the most pressing challenges — financially and programmatically — that face us now,” he explained. “We have to look at the problems that will be confronting us over the next two or three years, but at the same time determine where we want to see ourselves past that three-year mark moving forward.”
Looking ahead, he noted that, as the Y prepares to mark its 165th birthday, the facility on Chestnut Street — part of a huge urban-renewal effort in Springfield’s North End — will approach the half-century mark itself, a milestone that has already prompted considerable talk of a ‘new Y.’
Berg uses that term himself, but not necessarily in the context of a replacement for the aging Chestnut Street facilities — a step he acknowledges is still many years away. Instead, he uses it to refer to the organization as a whole and if and how it should be reshaped to better serve constituencies ranging from its members to the larger community.
“The YMCA is not a building,” he insisted. “The Y is a mission, and we need to go where the people are. The Y can go anywhere and be anywhere.”
For this issue, HCN sat down with Berg in that new meeting room he created to talk about the organization, its challenges, its future, and how he considers himself fully equipped to lead the organization to better times.
A Good Fit
As he walked through the Y after his interview with HCN on his way to the fitness center for some pictures, Berg stopped to talk with several individuals.
They ranged from an obviously pleased teen sitting in the front lobby who had just that morning secured his driver’s license, to an elderly gentleman in the locker room who has been coming to the Chestnut Street facility since the day it opened in 1968, to a Springfield-based lawyer walking some laps on the fitness center’s track, something he’s been doing for decades.
If he seemed totally at ease in those surroundings and with such people, it was with good reason. Indeed, Berg said he’s been around and, in many ways, part of YMCAs his whole life, dating back to when his mother was a volunteer at the original Agawam branch back in the ’70s.
He took part in a number of its programs, including what was known then as Y Indian Guides with his father.
For Berg, the Y shifted in nature — from being something he participated in to something he aspired to do for his career — when he worked as a staffer at Camp Sloper in Southington, Conn. while in high school and college.
As things turned out, he was far from the only future YMCA director working or staying at the camp during his tenure; there were several, in fact, and they remain in touch today, said Berg, talking about everything from their respective families to common challenges facing their Ys.
Berg started his career with the Y organization in 1991, a year after earning a degree in English at Boston College, as youth and family director of the Waltham Family Branch of the YMCA of Greater Boston.
In 1994, Clay, whom Berg had met while both were working for Ys in the eastern part of the state, offered him a somewhat similar opportunity in Springfield, as youth and camping services program director, and he accepted it.
“It was really good timing,” he recalled. “He was looking for a youth and camping director, and I was a youth and family director. At the time, we were just starting a family … it was a great opportunity.”
Over the next decade, he would hold several titles with the YMCA of Greater Springfield, but was most noted for his work with the creation of the Scantic Valley branch — a name that stems from the river that runs through several communities in that area.
It all started with Clay deciding to act upon multiple requests he’d received for a teen center in Wilbraham, an assignment he gave to Berg. Over time, Y leaders saw a need for additional YMCA programming, he noted, adding that this led to the eventual creation of a new Y branch that provided services through partnerships with, and facilities at, Wilbraham Monson Academy, Healthtrax, area schools, and other sites.
Growing participation in such programs led to a feasibility study that concluded there was ample demand for a full Y branch in the Wilbraham area, said Berg, who led the efforts to raise money to build the current facility in Post Office Park on Route 20.
Berg ran that Y for a few years before leaving for different opportunities. After a brief stint with Action Fire Restoration in Chicopee, which he served as general manager, Berg would shift his career path and segue into higher education and, more specifically, development efforts.
At Western New England University, he served as director of Major Gifts & Planned Giving and, among others, took a lead role in the capital campaign to expand the institution’s law school. And at Springfield College, he was assistant vice president for Development, managing a team that raised an a average of $4.5 million each of the five years he was in that role.
When Clay retired from the Y, Berg said he thought briefly about seeking the president’s role, but quickly determined that the job, which can be something approaching a seven-day-a-week proposition — “it’s a lifestyle more than it is a job,” he noted — was not the right opportunity at that time, given the young age of his four children.
But Berg, who had been serving on the Y’s board since 2007, stepped down from that panel in 2011 to seek the director’s position when James Morton left to lead the YMCA of Greater Hartford. He did not prevail in that search, but again put out his name in for consideration last fall, because of what he called “devotion to the YMCA” — a phrase he used to reference not only the Greater Springfield operation — the second-oldest in the country — but the institution as a whole.
“I’m a Y person by nature and by birth — this has always been near and dear to my heart,” he said, while noting that the phrase ‘dream job’ doesn’t exactly fit the description for his new position. Instead, he chose to say it’s the right job at this time in his life — and a stern challenge he’s willing to accept.
Shape of Things to Come
Leaning up against one wall in the new meeting room Berg created is a board honoring the groups and individuals that donated to the so-called Growing Together campaign he led to not only build the Scantic Valley YMCA, but also purchase and renovate Blessed Sacrament Church into the North End Youth Center.
He recalls this as a time when the community rallied behind the Y — one of countless times it has done so during its history — and help propel it to new heights. And also as a tremendous learning experience for him on a number of levels.
“The Y gave me the gift of being able to be a capital-campaign director, and I learned it all, soup to nuts,” he explained, adding that his experiences conceptualizing and then building the new Y branch helped him in those roles at Springfield College and WNEU. “That’s where I cut my teeth on serious fund-raising; we had hundreds of volunteers, there were timelines, expectations … it was really interesting because you have some great conversations, and you never really know where people’s interests are. That was an unbelievable experience.”
He had some others with the two colleges, he said, adding that what he learned from all that work is what he considers the most important lesson concerning development.
“It’s not about asking for money,” he told HCN. “It’s about developing relationships and seeing if people have an interest in supporting the cause; it becomes super effective if you can connect people to your mission. And if you believe in what you’re doing, it’s much easier to get that support.”
Believing in what he’s doing certainly won’t be an issue for Berg in his new role, given his passion for the Y organization and the Greater Springfield institution. And he hopes to use that passion — which permeates the agency, he said — to connect more people to its broad-based and ever-evolving mission.
“We have a great story to tell in terms of the number of young people we serve, the number of teens we serve, and the people we assist who have low and moderate incomes; last year, we gave out more than $750,000 in financial aid,” he explained. “We need to tell that story better and make sure we’re in the businesses that we should be in.”
Moving forward, one of those businesses should include a strong focus on wellness and prevention, he went on, adding that this is one of the recognized needs within the community as the population ages, and the direction in which healthcare, in general, is moving.
“Moving forward, there’s more and more need at YMCAs across the country, including ours, to look at the health-and-wellness component as people age,” Berg explained. “How can we be part of their family and part of their lifestyle and partner with their medical providers and their families to make sure they get the care they need?”
Seeking Fiscal Fitness
More and stronger connections and partnerships will be needed in the months and years to come, he said, because this Y is facing some stern fiscal challenges and difficult decisions.
One of those decisions has already been made with the announced closing of the 10,000-square-foot Agawam branch at the end of May, closing the book on an operation that looked good on paper, but never lived up to expectations.
“The members there really love it, and they’re wonderful people,” he told BusinessWest. “We just didn’t have enough of them.”
But the Agawam branch’s failure to reach the break-even point is just one factor contributing to the difficult budget situation, he went on, adding that, as expenses have grown over the years, revenues have struggled to keep pace and, in general, have failed to do so.
Dunbar is an example. The Mason Square institution, which has been operating under the dark cloud of foreclosure for more than two years, turned over operations to the Y in 2011.
Those operations have been expensive, said Berg, who summoned the phrase “turning the corner” to describe them from the standpoint of breaking even. The city of Springfield recently threw a lifeline to Dunbar when it announced it would pursue purchasing of the facility, and Berg said the Y might emerge as the winner of a search for an entity to run the operation — hopefully in a more cost-effective fashion.
The mounting financial challenges have forced the organization to do what all businesses and nonprofits do when they reach such a point — take steps to bring the two sides of the ledger, revenues and expenses, into better balance.
Closing the Agawam branch was one step, Berg noted, while another was the refinancing of the Y’s accumulated debt. Several institutions have come together to assist the Y in this endeavor, he said, adding that it should help the $12 million operation with cash flow.
As for the future, and that ‘new Y’ he referenced, Berg said a replacement structure for the Chestnut Street is always something in the back of his mind, but something simply not realistic now or in the foreseeable future.
But, as he said, the Y is not a building, so a ‘new Y’ doesn’t mean a new structure.
“Once we get through our immediate challenges, we need to examine what the Y facility of the future looks like, or should look like,” he said, adding that this means everything from the facilities to the programming. “We need to anticipate what the needs and demands will be over the next 25 to 50 years and then look at how to meet them.”
View to the Future
Aside from providing convenient space for meetings, that renovated office at the Y also offers a great view of the side entrance to the facility, said Berg.
And that allows those conducting business to maintain a focus, figuratively but also quite literally, on what — and whom — they’re in business to serve.
“We can just look out there and see what we’re here for,” he said, adding that this vantage point should help the team at the Y not only weather the current storm but hone its mission to effectively meet changing societal needs in the years and decades to come.
“I look at the Y as a lifestyle — it’s not something you join, it’s something you live,” he said in conclusion, adding this is especially true for him, and this attitude fully explains why he’s now looking out the window every day.