Geneva Park supporters are upset with what they claim is “a lack of transparency” from the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka regarding the sale of the iconic property that has served multiple generations of families from Orillia and beyond.
The sale of the property to private developer Clayton Smith was announced, via news release, Monday.
Gail Atkinson, chair of the Friends of Geneva Park board, says she was disappointed with the way the YMCA “broke the trust” of community members who wanted to be assured the park would be sold to a buyer who would continue to provide a gathering place for family and community programs.
She lamented that the group learned of the sale through the news release.
When the YMCA “suddenly announced, in January 2021, that it would sell Geneva Park,” Atkinson said, the “Geneva Park donor and stakeholder community immediately mobilized to find a way to partner with (the YMCA) to preserve and grow the legacy of the park’s storied history and natural space for current and future generations.”
Over the ensuing 14 months, the non-profit entity Friends of Geneva Park was formed “to ensure the continuation of YMCA Geneva Park’s century-long tradition of adventure-based leadership development in its unique natural learning environment, through programs for children, youth, seniors and families, and to safeguard the sacred natural systems so crucial to our continued existence.”
Atkinson’s grandparents helped build Geneva Park and she spent her summers growing up at the lakeside property. She has been a visitor to the park with her own children; her history with the property spans more than 60 years.
“For many months, we received verbal assurances that we would be included in the process,” Atkinson said. “In the end, what the (YMCA) ended up doing was pretty much the exact opposite.”
Atkinson says the organization made it clear that the Friends of the Geneva Park board was “just the donor community, and they did not trust them enough” as partners.
“They were meeting with us regularly,” she said, “but each time, they never really let us in.”
In a news release this week, YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka CEO Jill Tettmann explained the process.
“The process was specifically designed in consultation with park stakeholders, aimed at balancing the long-term sustainability of our YMCA with the best community use of the property and ways to continue the legacy of the park,” said Tettmann, who could not be reached prior to publication of this story.
Gord Ball sees it differently. He has had a special life-long relationship with Geneva Park, having spent his summers at the idyllic property for more than 75 years.
“We feel as though we have been given virtually no information over the past year on the effort to sell Geneva Park,” said Ball, who is also a member of the Friends of Geneva Park board.
The YMCA has made “repeated promises” of transparency, yet “claims they will not reveal anything about the agreement made to sell the assets built by generations of charitable donations,” Ball lamented.
“Making public a full or partial version of the agreement immediately would deliver on their promise of transparency,” said Ball. “The honest dealings of a charitable enterprise have no need to hide behind a cloak of non-disclosure.”
While Atkinson is disappointed with the process, she said she has high hopes for new owner Clayton Smith, who spearheaded the redevelopment of the nearby Orillia Rama Regional Airport, and has bought the historic property that sprawls along Lake Couchiching in Ramara Township.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said. “Everything I’ve read and heard about Clayton Smith says to me that he is a very promising buyer.”
Atkinson is hopeful Smith will provide some assurances that there will be a way to safeguard the park and ensure its future is consistent with the its past.
“I certainly hope that we can trust him,” she said. “I hope he turns out to be someone whose actions match his words, unlike the (YMCA).”
Ball looks forward to meeting with Smith and sharing ideas about the future of the park.
“We are hopeful that this new buyer sounds promising,” he said. “If there is a way to continue the leadership development programs and the family programs that have been going on there for 115 years, then we will be very happy.”
Smith has not responded to requests for comments.