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May 5, 2012

‘It’s Exciting’: Elementary school may become YMCA

NEW CASTLE — A proposal to convert Walnut Ridge Elementary into the Ellwood City YMCA could be finalized within six to 12 months.

Bill Lutz, chief executive officer of the YMCA in New Castle, described the current stage as "very preliminary exploration."

Lutz explained the slow pace.

“Ellwood City is a great community for a Y. We’ve gotten lots of encouragement from the leadership, but we want to do our homework. We have one opportunity to do it right.”

By homework, Lutz says, his board will study the building and grounds, community demographics, the level of community interest in supporting the nonprofit venture financially and whether the Y, Ellwood City Chamber of Commerce, borough officials and other groups are willing to discuss how all can work together.

“I want to involve as many people in the project as possible,” he said.

Chris Thompson, Ellwood City Area School District’s buildings and grounds superintendent, said the school building, built in 1954 for $390,000 and renovated in 1996, covers 22,969 square feet on 3.25 acres.

He said there is plenty of room for expansion, should the buyer wish to do that.

Michael Wish of Wish Development Co. in Neshannock Township purchased the property in March for $100,000 from the school district.

He said he expects renovations tailored to the needs of the Y to cost many times more, but final costs have yet to be determined.

Wish, who also owns Gateway Commerce Center, a former limestone mine on Route 18, learned of the real estate opportunity from an employee.

At Holy Redeemer’s 8 a.m. mass one Sunday — regularly attended by both Deb Sudano, general manager of Gateway, and Frank Aloi, school district superintendent — Sudano remembers Aloi telling her, “You might want to tell Mike to buy Walnut Ridge.”

Aloi said he knew Wish was involved in buying real estate properties and that the school board was hoping “someone would buy it and make good use of the building.”

He said the building is in good condition and has a lot of potential to benefit the community.

Sudano credits Aloi for persuading the board to reconsider Wish’s offer, the highest of three bids submitted but lower than the board had hoped to get.

Terry Stramba, Ellwood City Chamber of Commerce director, said, “I think this is very exciting, to turn a vacant structure into an asset to the community.

“Forward thinking by a business entrepreneur coming into the Ellwood market spurs others to think of new opportunities,” Stramba said.

“We are so excited about this whole thing with lots of things for kids,” Sudano said. “Mike is a great guy. I have tremendous respect for his vision. People like him help make things grow.”

Lutz said the Y is a family-based organization that addresses the needs of youth with sports and after school activities and wellness.

“It’s great for small children and seniors, all ethnic and religious backgrounds. The mission is healthy living, youth development and social responsibility.”

He said the Y in New Castle is partnering with schools, social service agencies, the chamber and the hospital to help resolve the problems of childhood obesity.

Dom Viccari, Ellwood City borough manager, said the Walnut Ridge location is familiar to most in the area because of its proximity to Ellwood City Hospital. Having the Y locate a branch there “would be the fulfillment of a dream started 50 years ago with The Family Center on Line Avenue.

“So often since the 1960s, groups have approached council asking for a community center,” he said. “It’s exciting. I hope it comes to pass.”

(Email: nclocal@ncnewsonline.com)

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