By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Whether or not the old theater at the Apollo Plaza in Monticello should be used by the YMCA suddenly became the focus of the Legislature on Thursday.
Legislator David Sager broached the issue, expressing concern over the Democrat’s recent report that the Middletown YMCA which operates facilities in Monticello and Rock Hill is interested in leasing the former theater building, which sits apart from the rest of the mall complex.
Sager thought the county’s yet-to-be-finalized lease of the entire property to Chancellor-Livingston (C-L) was predicated on bringing retail and its accompanying sales tax generation to the long-empty site.
“If they’re doing retail,” he wondered, “why are they giving the farm away?”
The YMCA, as a non-profit, would not generate the kind of tax revenue a for-profit would at that site.
“And the YMCA already has a sweetheart deal in the Town of Thompson with the Monticello School District,” Sager charged.
Legislators Ron Hiatt and Jodi Goodman agreed it was of concern, with Hiatt worrying a non-profit fitness center there would compete with similar for-profit ventures.
But Industrial Development Agency (IDA) CEO Allan Scott urged them to consult with County Attorney Sam Yasgur to avoid delaying the deal now in the works with C-L.
“Rather than revisit that issue and stage public meetings,” Scott remarked, “... let us keep moving forward.”
When asked by legislators, Yasgur confirmed that “there are apparently feelers out there, but we can deal with that.”
He didn’t elaborate, but C-L partner Henry Zabatta and YMCA Development Director Linda Cellini had already told the Democrat that the two entities are interested in working out an inexpensive way to establish the YMCA’s main Sullivan County facility at the old theater once C-L finalizes lease terms with the county.
Upset with what he considered a backroom political deal, Sager insisted the matter should be investigated further in order to secure the public’s trust and make good on the promises made.
“This kind of stuff is not going to happen,” he stated. “It’s not good for business. It’s good for a few people, but not the whole county. ... The end result was to broaden our [tax] base, not shrink it.”
Nevertheless, he and other legislators expressed support for C-L’s plan to resurrect the Apollo.
“I think we are steadfastly in support,” noted Legislator Alan Sorensen. “... It’s our best opportunity to maximize public investment. ... The last thing they need is a message out there that the county’s having second thoughts, because I’m not having any second thoughts.”
“We’re doing everything we can to make this work,” assured Yasgur.
C-L, YMCA respond
No officials from C-L or the YMCA were present at Thursday’s Legislature meeting, but when contacted afterwards, both Zabatta and Cellini expressed disappointment with the comments.
“We’re the ones who are foregoing the potential profit,” Zabatta explained, referring to the low rent C-L plans to charge the YMCA while still paying the $1 per square foot the county is expected to charge C-L on every occupied space.
“We always thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something for the community?’” Zabatta recalled. “... [With the YMCA,] at the same time, the county gets their money, and the community gets a facility they can use.”
And local workers get a daycare center that’s part of the YMCA’s plan, he said.
Zabatta added that the former director of the YMCA, not Cellini herself, approached him about the idea.
“It’s very discouraging,” said Cellini, who’s spearheading a capital campaign to raise the estimated $700,000 to renovate the structure. “We’ve lost so many wonderful things that could have happened in Sullivan County because of these types of comments.”
Cellini’s husband, Tony, is Thompson’s supervisor, but she denied this potential deal had any political connotations. (Zabatta added that the Apollo project falls under the authority of the county and the Village of Monticello.)
“I’ve been trying to bring a YMCA to Monticello before I even met Tony,” she explained. “There really isn’t anything for families here to do together.”
The Monticello School District, she said, only has a small wellness center, while the Rock Hill nature preserve isn’t yet operational.
She theorized that Sager’s comments might stem from “sour grapes” about his unsuccessful run against NYS Senator John Bonacic, for whom she works.
As for Hiatt’s concerns, “we’re not putting anybody out of business,” Cellini explained. “It’s not a gym.”
Plus the facility remains only a dream.
“Nothing’s been signed,” she remarked. “We’ve only had conversations at this point.”
Cellini’s worried this issue could derail plans for any YMCA in Sullivan County, fearing her board will take the comments as indicative of a lack of local support.
Meanwhile with the Apollo Mall itself, Zabatta is wooing potential retailers but said C-L still awaits action on the lease.
“The county is negotiating the agreement to develop with the IDA,” he explained. “So it’s between them. It hasn’t gotten to us yet.”