Just west of downtown Atlanta and within walking distance of the massive Mercedes Benz Stadium, lies another symbol of the changing face of Atlanta’s Westside.

Located on part of what used to be the campus of Morris Brown College and, before that, Atlanta Public School System’s E. A. Ware Elementary School—the first elementary school in Atlanta for African-Americans—is the new sleek, multi-use headquarters of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

After United Way of Metro Atlanta decided to sell their building on Edgewood Avenue downtown which included the YMCA and other nonprofit agencies as tenants, the YMCA’s board of directors decided that it was time for the organization to “put down some roots” in a community and not go back to being a tenant in a high-rise again.

Although the YMCA demolished most of the historic school for its new facility, it did keep a portion of the older building to provide some continuity to the past, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle. The new 55,000 square-foot facility will house the YMCA headquarters staff on the upper level. But it also will serve the community in several ways on its first floor.

The facility boasts the Kaiser Permanente Community Wellness Center that will provide free community wellness programs as well as the Chick-fil-A Training Center that will provide ongoing training for YMCA staff and partners. The training center is expected to train 4,000 people a year. The space also will be available for community meetings.

The Atlanta Voice recently sat down and talked with the YMCA President / CEO Lauren Koontz about the organization’s move and plans for westside Atlanta.

Koontz was named president / CEO in April and assumed her duties in mid-July after being with the nonprofit for over seven years, first as its chief development officer and then later as its executive vice president. Koontz succeeds Ed Munster, who served as the YMCA’s CEO since 2009 and had been with the organization for 23 years.

Koontz also happens to be the first woman to assume the role of president / CEO of Metro YMCA in the organization’s 161 years.
Koontz was interviewed in the facility’s new Arthur Blank Early Learning Center, which will serve up to 90 neighborhood children starting in August.

The Atlanta Voice: What are some of the directives that you received from your board of directors after you became CEO?

Koontz: What I think is unique about this organization is that the Y has been in metro Atlanta since 1858 we have been in Atlanta for 151 years. And the mission of the organization has never fundamentally changed.

For 161 years, we have been committed to building a healthy mind body and spirit. But for us to be relevant we have to adapt boldly, we have to be listening to communities and we have to be thinking about what types of programs do we need to have that meet the needs of where we are at any given time.

So what the board is asking me to do is to ensure that this organization is position to be relevant in all the areas that we have core competencies like around education, wellness and health promotions around youth development and at the end of the day we should serve as a community anchor organization that is helping to strengthen communities and connect partnerships to help make communities stronger. So their directive to me was to make sure that we are moving into the future to be position successfully to meet the communities’ needs.

To some, this new headquarters located in this traditionally black neighborhood could be looked as a sign of gentrification. How do you respond to that perception?

Koontz: I think that everyone is worried about gentrification in that with all of on the Westside that legacy residents will be forced out with rising property taxes or higher rents.

I give a lot of kudos to a lot of people over the past three to five years have spent all of their time thinking about how do we create communities, where legacy residents can be protected through tax incentives, how do we protect their rents, which is really important because this community is historic. It’s the cradle of the Civil Rights movement.

So the people who stayed here when everybody left those folk need to be protected. They need to have the opportunity to be a part of the reinvestment that is happening. How do we make sure that those residents stay here and be apart of everything that happens as this community continues to have the resources poured into it?

We are very mindful of that. We want to be good neighbors. We don’t’ want to be seen as nothing but an organization that is here for no other reason than investing positively in the community and being the type of neighbor that people want.

The YMCA could have moved its headquarters to anywhere in metro Atlanta. Why the Westside?

Koontz: We have had our headquarters in downtown Atlanta in the United Way building for 40 years and we had two floors there.

When you think about the footprint of the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, we have 18 family membership branches, 13 early childhood learning centers, two youth and teen centers, two resident camps, 50 after school sites, so it’s a large geographic area that we cover.

And when we found out that United Way was selling the building, we needed to find a new home for our headquarters and support center.

We really did some soul searching and we thought about the fact that we didn’t want to go back inside another building downtown in another high-density area, we felt called to say that our headquarters and support center could be a part of a community where we could put down roots and we could figure out what programs we could run out the center that could be something that the community could want and would embrace.

An early learning center in a headquarters?

Koontz: We have (in the program) 90 children from the English Avenue and Vine City communities. This is where we research and incubate new ideas, this is where we innovate all of our work around literacy, and language infusion for kids, STEAM, and starting as young as two and three years old, our wellness work.

So the idea really is highlighted it here we can then take that good work and roll it out to those 13 early learning centers where we serve more than 3,000 children every single day, across 180 classrooms. The kids we serve in early learning, 90 percent of them are poverty level or below.

We are highly focused that making sure the vulnerable children in the communities we serve have the skills that they need to start kindergarten on a path to read — learn by the third grade. And that’s so important because third-grade reading levels are really what tell you what’s going to happen in a child’s future. A child on a third-grade reading level usually goes down one path and that’s towards high school graduation and economic mobility.

If not on a third-grade reading level they have a much harder road in front of them to be able to own their own future. So I think for us to have this early learning center in the community to serve the children in the community and for it to be the flagship is really exciting.

What other programs or activities do you operate out of here?
Koontz: I’m not sure there is a YMCA like this one in the country where you have the support center for the entire organization and then you have this learning center, plus a training and development center where we train not only our own staff, but we have a child development associate program that we have in conjunction with United Way of Metro Atlanta.

We are actually training residents on the Westside to get that credential so they can work in any licensed early learning center.

We have a small wellness footprint that we are going to be activating where we will be doing classes like yoga, Zumba and others at no cost or very low cost. The last piece that I’m excited about is next spring we are going to open up on the front of the building The Market on Maple.

That’s where there will be a community cafe with coffee and healthy grab-and-go foods, a pop-up market for fruits and vegetables where anyone in the community can come and be a part of that.

We really tried to think about what are some unique components because this isn’t a full-blown YMCA because it had to be our headquarters. We sat down and talked with folk about how we could bring some elements to this building that would allow us to partner with the community in substantial and meaningful ways.

(Photo: Stan Washington/The Atlanta Voice)

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