AUBURN, Maine — In 1918, World War I was just wrapping up. U.S. soldiers were coming home and there was concern about where they would go.

In Auburn, civic leaders got busy. Over the next two years, they worked like mad to raise a quarter-million dollars to fund the project. Their efforts were successful. In May 1922, a brand-new YMCA opened its doors at 62 Turner St.

No one knew the building would have to last nearly 100 years.

On Thursday, a group of YMCA board members huddled under a tent in a sprawling field off North River Road. It wasn’t much of a field — 92 acres of browning grass and trees that drooped after a day of rain. But to those board members, the field and surrounding woods represented the future, a new YMCA complete with an eight-lane swimming pool, a skate park, day care and space for basketball, baseball and football.
They might even try to get a full-sized ice rink in there, if enough people are interested.

The Androscoggin River is across the street, so there would be opportunities for Y members to paddle and walk the trails. The area is heavily wooded, so there would be hiking, skiing and camping. And of great importance to many, the local YMCA would at last have more than enough room for parking.

It’s a grand vision. All the board needs to do is to come up with $15 million.

“It’s an aggressive goal,” Executive Director Brian DuBois said. “It will require an all-hands-on-deck mentality.”

About 70 percent of the cost is expected to come from grants and gifts. For the next three years, the board will be campaigning to come up with the funds, with an eye on breaking ground in 2015.

Roughly two dozen people stood under the tents on North River Road on Thursday as rain poured down. It was a bitter day, wet and windy. But there was very little complaining about that. The board members seemed mindful of what their predecessors had to go through to raise money at a time when there was no Internet; there were no cell phones, no ’round-the-clock networking.

“If they could do it back then . . .,” Development Director Kristin Melville said.

She didn’t have to finish the sentence. Her peers knew what she was trying to say: There is plenty of work to do if they want a sparkling new facility to rise up on this empty lot.

A giant first step has already been taken. They bought the land — which lies between Bradman and Stetson roads along the river — from William H. Cummings Jr. of Auburn.
Cummings braved the cold with the rest of them Thursday for the combination news conference/celebration.

“The best of everything,” Cummings said, sitting and clutching his cane in the back row. “I really believe it.”

The board believes it, too, but they were taking no chances. It is a Christian organization, after all. They had the land blessed before doing much of anything else.

“It’s more than just a land and facility,” said the Rev. Roger Cousineau, before he led the group through his blessing. “It’s families. It’s children. It’s boys and girls.”

It was not disclosed how much the YMCA paid Cummings for the land, which is valued by the city at $680,900. Even so, it would be hard to accuse the board of haste. Local YMCA leaders have been kicking around the idea of building new since the 1970s. More recently, the board has looked at and rejected 16 possible sites for the new facility.

“We’ve been through many, many meetings,” board President Thomas Anthoine said. “And many, many conversations.”

The local YMCA has 2,200 members, including children and adults. It operates Camp Connor in Poland, a day camp for children. The problem with the Turner Street facility, board members say, is that it cannot get any bigger.

“Our facility is keeping us from engaging more use, engaging more families,” DuBois said.

And the board would like nothing better than to grow. With the new building, DuBois stressed that the Y would seek out partnerships, looking to team up with youth groups, the Housing Authority, perhaps a hockey group intrigued by the idea of a new rink.

That also goes for the YWCA of Central Maine in Lewiston, DuBois said. Several people have expressed concerns that a big, new YMCA in Auburn might undermine its sister facility across the bridge. But DuBois insisted that the two facilities could complement each other, if the issue were approached in the right way.

“If there’s good, healthy dialogue, something good can usually come from that,” he said.

The board would also like to incorporate Camp Connor into its plans, what with all the woods and the river right there.

Waterville, Augusta, Camden and Bath have new Y facilities, to name a few. The consensus among the local board members is that the time has come to move out of the old building on Turner Street. Working with the architect firm WBRC, the board has come up with a plan to which they are in no way committed. They simply want to make sure to do it right so that in 80 years or so, some new group of YMCA leaders will stand in a new field, talking about what a great job was done by their predecessors.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” DuBois said.

“It’s a big deal for this community,” said Melville, the development director. “It’s a big deal for the whole state.”

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