The value of public-private partnerships: the story of the Southeast Raleigh YMCA

The value of public-private partnerships: the story of the Southeast Raleigh YMCA

When the YMCA of the Triangle picked Southeast Raleigh for their next facility, they knew they would need to do more than build a recreation center. Poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to education and health care were all barriers to success. Instead of choosing to do this on their own, they forged public-private partnerships (PPPs) with the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) and the City of Raleigh to build up the community, raise the standard of living, and find success for private and public interests. WithersRavenel had the privilege of being the planner and engineer for the first PPP of its kind in the region.

The original project

The initial concept included many familiar Y features: an indoor gymnasium, wellness floor and locker rooms, a large outdoor pool, playground equipment, and a multi-purpose athletic field. These facilities would fill a long-standing need in an underserved area with few recreational spaces or programs.

But the question hanging over the project from the beginning was “would a stand-alone Y appeal to the community and provide what’s needed?” Southeast Raleigh has one of the highest unemployment rates in Wake County, and disposable income for memberships is scarce. Healthy activities take a back seat when having enough food for three square meals a day is not a guarantee.

The YMCA of the Triangle could not solve all these problems—not alone, at least.

The first public-private partnership with Wake County Public School System

The YMCA of the Triangle turned to Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) with an ambitious plan. Instead of building a standalone facility, they would combine the Y with an elementary school.

A half-school, half-YMCA might sound like a strange new beast, but it was already covered by a North Carolina law that allows private developers to construct public school buildings.

A new elementary school in Southeast Raleigh had already been identified in the County’s long-range plan, but the project would not have started as quickly without the YMCA of the Triangle acting as the developer.

Tim Carr, the YMCA of the Triangle’s Senior Vice President for Real Estate Development & Facility Management, attributed the success of this partnership to his team’s familiarity with the public process.

“Because there were several on our team that had had experience in the public world, we all knew how the mechanics worked, and we all were able to sort of say, ‘Well yeah, we can make that work for this.’ So, for example, we didn’t have to do public bid openings, but we did have to open the books for both WCPSS and Wake County Government to ensure we were taking low bid, or that we had a reason to not take low bid within 30+ bid packages.”

Key partnership collaboration with the City of Raleigh

The City of Raleigh was also instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

Around the time the project was starting, the City was remapping all of its commercial zoning districts. The Southeast Raleigh property was initially assigned a zoning district that was not compatible with the YMCA’s vision.

The YMCA of the Triangle approached the City with its plan and asked if the City would consider a different zoning designation to allow a true neighborhood to be built, including a City street funded through the City’s 2017 transportation bond and a new 120-unit affordable housing community dubbed Beacon Ridge.

The City deemed this project to have a significant public benefit and assigned a project coordinator to assist the design team with the entitlement processes.

Bringing it all together

The “Y-School” took three years to design, build, and commission. A little more than half of the building provides pre-kindergarten through grade 5 classes; the balance offers youth and adult recreation and adult health and parenting programs. The two entities share a large multipurpose space, the fifth-grade commons with a community kitchen, access to the pool for all children to learn to swim, and a playfield with shelter and walking path for the community.

Eligible students—most of the school’s population—receive free breakfast and lunch on site and a packed meal to take home in the evening. All students take swimming lessons as part of their physical education class, an effort designed in part to combat the disproportionately high rate of drownings among African American children compared to their white peers. Rooftop and ground-level gardens and a rainwater cistern pull double duty as sustainability features and educational opportunities.

The Southeast Raleigh YMCA offers subsidized membership rates for children. It also provides job opportunities for adults and teens—in fact, the YMCA of the Triangle is the largest summer employer of youth in Wake County.

Meanwhile DHIC, Inc., the non-profit housing organization behind Beacon Ridge, has confirmed the neighborhood was fully occupied as of December 2020. Families can now walk to school or the Y—no car needed.

Measuring success

This project is a great case for the need of the Purpose Built Communities Model, a holistic approach to tackling complex, deeply-rooted issues as intergenerational poverty, unsafe environments, high crime, and failing schools.

The Purpose Build Communities Model relies on a “community quarterback” to mobilize stakeholders and resources from all sectors. The community quarterback sets the strategy for the overall effort based on the community’s vision.

In Southeast Raleigh, the community quarterback is non-profit organization Southeast Raleigh Promise (SERP). SERP’s community vision has five pillars:

    1. Cradle-to-Career Education
    2. Mixed-Income Housing
    3. Community Wellness
    4. Economic Opportunity
    5. Leadership Development

The Y school was designed primarily as a Community Wellness project, but it also supports Cradle-to-Career Education and Leadership Development. Beacon Ridge has created Mixed-Income Housing.

The remaining pillar, Economic Opportunity, will be fulfilled by a future commercial development. The project will include elements that address access to healthy food and medical services, plus some commercial enterprises. The YMCA of the Triangle is working with a socially responsible developer to lead the effort according to SERP’s five pillars. Construction should begin by the end of this year.

Throughout the project, the YMCA not only met but exceeded the City’s equity goals. They set out to have a minimum of 30 percent minority participation and a workforce development program. They were able to achieve an impressive 47 percent minority business participation, and they hired approximately 25 people and 17 businesses located in Southeast Raleigh.

Lessons learned

The use of public-private partnerships enabled the YMCA of the Triangle to pursue a far more ambitious project than would have been possible by any individual entity. The PPPs also brought stakeholders to the table more quickly and increased community participation because they demonstrated the City and County governments’ commitment to positive outcomes for Southeast Raleigh residents.

Activating the community and community partners is crucial when PPP projects encounter challenges. Environmental issues, tough geological conditions, and regulatory hurdles all have the potential to stop a project in its tracks. But highly motivated stakeholders will find creative ways to overcome these difficulties, because the outcome is worth the effort.

Knowledgeable planners and engineers can also make a difference. The “Y-School” was on a tight deadline to admit students for the 2019–2020 school year. The experts at WithersRavenel facilitated the special project request and helped prevent delays that could have jeopardized the school’s opening.

Final thoughts

“I think the model of this type of partnership, especially in the YMCA world and public-school world, is one that should be replicated. It can be replicated,” said Tim Carr.

The YMCA of the Triangle is looking to do this kind of project again in Durham, NC, and in the Chatham Park development in Pittsboro, NC. They are actively seeking partners who share the YMCA’s commitment to community-building for these projects and others.

Tim concluded with this encouragement to any developers, consultants, and non-profits considering a project like the Southeast Raleigh YMCA or a public-private partnership: “If you’re willing to stand for the challenges, it’s really worthwhile.”