Long, creative career at YMCA reaches peak with new Pittsford facility

Source: RBJ.net

The YMCA of Greater Rochester Inc. touches pretty much every square inch of the city and suburbs. Thousands of people flock to the nonprofit’s 17 locations each day, and that number continues to grow as the agency increasingly caters to its members.

“We’ve become a sought-after commodity. We’ve become a center of community where we’re located,” says George Romell, the man who has overseen it all for three decades. “I love that. I love the fact that it’s not ‘gym and swim.’ It’s socialization. It’s meeting friends. It’s finding resources. There’s a soul to these buildings.”
In its 165-year history in Rochester, the YMCA has grown tremendously, from serving 50 young men enrolled as charter members to more than 183,000 local members. The nonprofit boasts more than 25,000 children in childcare programs and just as many enrolled in overnight and day camps each summer.

The YMCA has grown its budget to nearly $50 million, its staff to more than 2,000 and its net assets to nearly $53 million. Nearly 18,000 members receive financial assistance and more than 14,000 seniors participate in unique programs at facilities across the region.

But at the center of it all is the YMCA people, Romell says.

“I think in the end you can talk about all the statistics you want and all the buildings you want, but that interaction that that person is having right there with that member is what it’s all about,” says Romell, 62, nodding at a YMCA staffer who had stopped to help a teen. “She’s smiling, she’s making sure that kid had a good experience. And that’s what it’s about. I never forget that because it was me.”

You had me at ‘camp’

Romell realized during his college orientation that what he really wanted to do with his life was work within the YMCA. Growing up in Springfield, Mass., Romell discovered the Y as a youngster who had frequented it for birthday parties.

“I did nothing with the Y as a teenager. I decided to cut lawns four days a week with four other friends and camp three days—go somewhere on a bike with my backpack and saddlebags and tent camping. And I loved it,” he says wistfully.

When the lawn mowing business ended, Romell in his senior year of high school was reminded of a YMCA camp he had attended as a kid: Camp Norwich in Huntington, Mass. His parents suggested he become a camp counselor.

“I thought my parents were trying to get me out of the house because I was a typical 17-year-old jerk,” he recalls with a grin. “I went there and it was the weekend of my college orientation and after two days of training it went like this—boom—this is it. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

He found himself at college orientation longing to be back at camp.
“I had a great boss. He was fantastic,” Romell says of that first job as camp counselor. “He said to me, ‘You’re the CEO of that cabin. You’re in charge of everything that happens: good, bad, right or wrong. Anything that happens, I’m holding you accountable for.’

“And I have carried that philosophy through to everybody that works and leads our branches,” Romell says.

Romell went back to college, but returned to the Y on breaks.

“My first job on winter break was to put the cards on the wall where the prospective campaigners would pick people they know to call for pledges,” he says, adding that he also participated in phone-a-thons. “That was my introduction to annual giving, which we’re now raising $2.6 million (locally).”

Romell also worked in security at a YMCA that got robbed a couple of times a week because of its Western Union office.

“It had a steel cage where we greeted members where you’d pass the money through,” he says of the location. “It had 120 rooms of residents. One floor was people who had survived World War I or World War II and had severe behavioral challenges. One floor was railroad workers, which was full of prostitution and drugs. One floor was college students because the local community didn’t have a dorm. And one floor that was a secure detention shelter for kids. This Y was as eclectic as you could get.”

Romell also served as a van driver, a life-guard, a volleyball referee and cleaned and folded the towels in the men’s locker room. As his responsibilities increased, so too did his desire to make the YMCA a career. Between the part-time Y jobs and a stint as a stagehand for rock concerts, Romell was able to pay for graduate school.

“I get out of graduate school and I’m immediately hired by the Y to run the camp that I love so much,” he recalls. “Nine years total in the camp from ’75 to ’84, from counselor to unit director to assistant director to director.”

It was about that time that Romell’s boss moved to the YMCA in Rome, Oneida County, and asked him to join him. It was a difficult decision to leave the camp he loved for a Y that did not offer many of the amenities he was used to, and a region where he knew no one. But move he did.

“This Rome Y was a small, independent Y, the center of the community. Just absolutely on fire with programming,” Romell recalls. “Lots of opportunities for national engagement. It was a relatively new Y and we had an amazing team.”

In 1988, while attending a national YMCA conference, Romell had an opportunity to learn more about the Rochester Y, where two jobs were open. Meanwhile, one of Romell’s former supervisors was now on the West Coast, where there was an opening as camp director for Camp Jones Gulch, one of the premier Y camps in the country.
“So now it’s this path: stay in camping and be a camp director, or go the more traditional route of branch executive in a metropolitan Y (in Rochester),” Romell says.

Not wanting to be too far from friends and family, Romell chose to come to Rochester, a fortuitous decision given that Camp Jones Gulch was destroyed during the Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the San Francisco area during the 1989 World Series.

“What attracted me here was the opportunity to do something. I saw the Southeast Branch and knew that it had the potential to be much more than it was,” Romell says of his first job up-on arriving in Rochester in early 1989.

The branch, which served the Pittsford area until the new Schottland Family Branch opened this year, was at the time struggling, Romell recalls.

“They had essentially thrown up their hands, said we can’t grow, we can’t do any more, and I was like, no, that’s not in my DNA,” he says. “At the time, the (Rochester) Y was very fractured, finances being the driving problem. The Y was losing money, it was selling property, it had a leadership challenge. But I was lucky. I had a boss who had come from Y USA who said to me, ‘I don’t want you to be the best branch in the association. I want you to be the best branch in the country.’”

So Romell got to work producing. He renovated Camp Arrowhead and expanded the Southeast Branch.

“And I am this wild, independent cowboy. I was absolutely the biggest rule-breaker in the association,” Romell says of his time at the helm of the Southeast Branch. “Honestly, I don’t know how I didn’t get fired 10 times over. I think it’s because I produced.”

In 1992, Romell was made a district executive, in charge of Southeast, Monroe and Camp Arrowhead. Shortly thereafter, Rochester’s chief operating officer left and Romell was named to replace him. Not surprisingly, the first thing he tackled were the underperforming camps.
“Second was massive expansion of branches that had the capacity to grow but were thwarted by the association’s finances,” Romell says. “Growth was the key, and I did that and I did it well.”

In 1998, when Rochester CEO Jacob Rhodes resigned, Romell was named interim CEO, a role he says he was ill-equipped for.

“Now it’s the interview process. I have four times to engage the board, but I don’t have any of the stated skill-sets,” he acknowledges. “I’m up against three other great candidates. I had a 103-degree fever that day. I have no idea what I said, but I got the job.”

Whatever it was, it worked.

“I was on the search committee to hire George,” says Edward Petinella, former CEO of Home Properties Inc., who joined the YMCA board during the 1970s, serving as chairman in the late 1990s. “That’s when I first got to meet George and he just did an unbelievable job in the interview. He blew away all the talent that we brought in from outside of Rochester.”


Since that time, Romell has led several camp expansions, branch renovations and new additions. The Westside Family Branch in Gates opened in 2004, while the Eastside Family Branch in Penfield was finished in 2006.

“That was our Mega Y,” Romell says of the Penfield branch. “That was the model of all models. Hundreds of YMCAs came to see that Y.”

As membership soared in the suburbs, Romell said it was time to take a hard look at the urban situation. In the 1990s, the board had voted to close the Maplewood Branch, located on Driving Park Avenue. But Romell felt the Y needed to make a “serious investment in an urban situation.”

Thus a $6 million expansion and renovation was planned for the Maplewood facility, which began at the height of the Great Recession. With some government support and roughly $4 million in philanthropy, the Maplewood Branch was ready to go.

In 2010, the Rochester YMCA began a 10-year comprehensive campaign to raise $75 million; the Maplewood expansion was the first project of that campaign. Several years ago, Romell and his team began making plans for a new Mega Y, one that would eclipse all other Ys in both its size and its offerings.

The 140,000-square-foot Schottland Family YMCA was named for a $3.5 million gift—the largest in the local YMCA’s history—by American Packaging Corp. CEO and Co-Chairman Peter Schottland and his wife Susan. The new Mega Y opened in September.

As YMCAs go, the $45 million Schottland Branch is the second-largest nationwide. The facility sits on 20 acres of land at Clover Street and Jefferson Road, and features the Pettinella Aquatic Center with more than 18,000 square feet of aquatic space for participants of all ages, as well as 15,000 square feet of space occupied by University of Rochester Medicine.
There are cooking classes, teen programming, a golf and sports simulator, a three-story train-themed play area and much more.

“I don’t want our Ys to be McDonald’s. We’re not a franchise,” Romell says of the years-long project and its outcome. “But I’m proud that we are a Y in this country that is well respected, that is looked to for leadership, one of 19 Ys in the country that hold contracts to train other Ys and consult other Ys.
“We are the Green Bay Packers of YMCAs,” he adds. “We are a big city YMCA in a small town.”


Helen Zamboni, a YMCA volunteer since the early 1980s and former longtime board member and board chair, says Romell’s leadership is at the core of the Greater Rochester YMCA’s success.

“But he’s also attracted a really good team of people,” Zamboni says. “The senior staff at the Y from the time he came on board has been very strong and continues to be strong.”

Romell’s knowledge of the organization, having served in so many different roles during the last four decades, means he knows what works and what doesn’t, she adds.

“George is an incredibly passionate individual, passionate about the Y,” Zamboni says. “And he is keenly involved with the volunteers. He’s always been someone who truly believes in the staff-volunteer partnership and has made it work to the Y’s tremendous advantage in terms of in-creasing the amount of philanthropy at the Y, seeking advice and guidance from volunteers and engaging them in a wide variety of supporting activities for the Y.”

Pettinella calls Romell a visionary.

“He’s got all the tools and has proven to be a great CEO,” Pettinella says. “He knows the operational details. He’s got the finance side down cold. He’s great at rallying troops, raising money and getting employees to happily meet the strategic plan each year.”

Despite the ups and downs of operating a nonprofit, particularly through a recession, Romell has handled it well, Pettinella explains.

“He always remains upbeat and sets a great example for his staff and for anybody who interfaces with him in his role as head of the local YMCA,” he adds. “It’s been a pleasure watching the movie over the decades.”

Romell is understandably proud of the Greater Rochester YMCA and his work to grow the association.

“The board has given me the bandwidth to do this. The board has believed in me,” Romell says. “Here’s the deal: This is my camp. At camp in the 70s I had six units. I have 17 now. This is my camp.”

-Velvet Spicer
Reprinted with permission of RBJ