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Frankford losing a center of activity

One day before the New Frankford Community Y shut its doors for good, the only sign of the impending closure was a letter from the center's staff propped up on the front desk of the lobby.

One day before the New Frankford Community Y shut its doors for good, the only sign of the impending closure was a letter from the center's staff propped up on the front desk of the lobby.

A group of women, most of them senior citizens, gathered at the indoor pool for the water exercise class. A man lifted free weights in the fitness center. A dozen preschoolers marched from their classroom to the gym.

The center, a staple of the city's Frankford section since 1941, is a casualty of the economic downturn and a temporary loss of state funds last year. It was a YWCA until 1994, when the Philadelphia branch faced its own fiscal problems; a private, nonprofit board of directors took over the center. It has struggled for the last 15 years but reached a financial crisis earlier this year. The staff has not been paid since late April.

"It's not something that we wanted to do, it's just necessity with the times the way they are," executive director Terry Tobin said of today's shutdown. "It's going to be a blow to the neighborhood."

The center's 800 members will have to find other facilities around the city for fitness classes, swimming, and other community events.

Staff members are especially concerned about the more than 60 youngsters ages 3 through 12 enrolled in preschool and after-school programs. Teachers notified parents of the closure last Friday and provided a list of other child-care centers in the neighborhood, but are worried that the change will upset the children.

Amanda Hampel, 30, has taught preschool at the center, at Arrott and Leiper Streets, for three years. She said the 32 preschoolers don't understand why they have to leave.

At new schools "they're not going to know anybody and they're going to be scared," she said. "They feel like they're at home here."

Tia Dancy, 23, lives around the corner and said she relies on the center for water exercise classes; a car accident two years ago left her with upper-body pain. Dancy is also a stay-at-home mom, and has three children on the waiting list for preschool and after-school programs.

"It's the best center in Frankford," she said. "I don't understand."

Tobin, who joined as executive director in 1997, said that the center had always been cash-strapped. The trouble began in 2008, when the state's Department of Community and Economic Development failed to approve a $200,000 grant the center had received annually for the previous few years, he said.

DCED spokesman Luke Webber said it was unclear why the state denied the funds after at least three consecutive years of approval.

And while the center was approved this year for the same grant - Tobin expects to receive it in a few weeks - it took on too much debt last year for the money to make a difference now.

The center also relies on funds from private corporations for special projects, which have been harder to obtain since the economy went sour. Most recently, it received a grant from the local St. Christopher's Foundation for Children, with help from City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, to renovate the center's kitchen this year.

Quiñones-Sánchez said she and State Rep. Tony Payton began working with the center three months ago to find a fiscal solution, but no funds were available at either the city or state level.

"There wasn't any money we could generate in enough time that would be sustainable," she said. Tobin "did a fabulous job of keeping the center open as long as he could," she added.

To keep programs running, Tobin had to choose in April between paying bills and paying employees. The 18 teachers and staff members haven't been paid for about a month, he said.

Willard Coleman, 33, who runs pool programs and is the night supervisor, said the center was too important to the community to leave, even if it meant going without a paycheck.

"I care about the community, what they're doing here with the kids," he said. Coleman, who started a swim team to get some of the older neighborhood boys off the street, is looking for work at other fitness centers around the city.

The New Frankford Y is one of several community groups in the neighborhood forced to end or reduce services in the last year. The Frankford Group Ministry, which used to also provide after-school care and community classes, recently downsized and now offers only an emergency assistance program.

"I don't think our area is the only one [affected by the economy], although certainly it feels like the Frankford neighborhood has been hit hard by all these losses," said the Rev. Thomas Brooks, president of the Frankford Group Ministry's board.

Payton said he and Quiñones-Sánchez were working with Tobin to court new owners who would restart the center's programs. He said two local potential buyers already were interested.

"It would be tragic to lose it when so many people utilize it," he said.

The center plans to hold a small party today with cake and games for the preschool students, "as a remembrance for the good times," said education coordinator Jamie Dawejko.

There won't be any other events to mark the closing, Tobin said, because "it's not something we want to celebrate."