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Leader to give Stanislaus YMCA a jolt

The YMCA, Modesto
The YMCA, Modesto Modesto Bee

An experienced, innovative YMCA leader with sound finances at his Chesapeake Bay camp will try to rescue the YMCA of Stanislaus County, he confirmed Wednesday.

Phil McGovern, executive director of the YMCA Tockwogh Camp and Conference Center in Maryland, said he will become chief executive officer of the financially strapped Young Men's Christian Association of Stanislaus County by Dec. 15.

He said he envisions expanding the YMCA's services beyond its Modesto building and High Sierra camp.

"I'm certainly not coming to oversee the closing of anything," McGovern said, referring to board members' comments that they have considered selling their 43-year-old building on McHenry Avenue to escape nearly $2 million in debt.

The beloved institution "can be righted," he said.

McGovern, 48, said he accepted the offer during a Halloween visit to Modesto.

Four days later, The Bee reported on the YMCA's financial crisis, including declining membership, lack of audits for two years and difficulties with vendors. Paying bills with endowment capital meant for other purposes caught the attention of state prosecutors, and a charity previously served by the endowments sought legal advice, The Bee has reported since.

"I'm looking for positive things to happen," McGovern said. "I wouldn't head into a situation where I didn't feel I could succeed."

Board members in Modesto two weeks ago acknowledged that the crisis might have scared away other candidates for the top job.

One, reached this week, said he felt great sympathy for members, staff and board leaders in Modesto but quickly left town once he studied the institution's financial records.

"It didn't take long because I'm trained to read those documents," he said, asking not to be named for fear of retaliation.

McGovern said he is familiar with nonprofit struggles and was not put off by the situation.

He declined to reveal his salary in Modesto. The previ- ous CEO, Steve Smith, earned $93,356 in salary and benefits in the year preceding April 2005, the last for which figures are publicly available.

He started as a soccer coach

Born and raised in Delaware, McGovern first encountered the YMCA as a volunteer soccer coach in high school and soon was hired as soccer coordinator. He coached high school and college teams and owned soccer camps in Delaware.

McGovern eventually worked up to associate director at YMCAs in Reno and Sparks, Nev., and spent 18 months as chief executive officer of the Corcoran Family YMCA south of Fresno.

McGovern returned to the East Coast when his brother fell ill and took the job at Tockwogh Camp, a 97-year-old watersports program owned by the YMCA of Maryland, which runs nine branches in various cities.

Michael Fellmeth, treasurer of the camp's board of directors, said McGovern expanded serv-ices and balanced his budget despite a higher mortgage from a community center built just before McGovern's arrival in June 2002. Among McGovern's experiments is a well-being weekend retreat for women, Fellmeth said.

"Our loss is (Modesto's) gain," Fellmeth said. "I'm sure Phil has good ideas for getting bodies in the door."

Dennis Wilson, a two-decade board member in Modesto, said Wednesday, "We're pretty ex- cited about having (McGovern) on board."

McGovern lives on the 300-acre camp in Maryland, which enjoys two miles of northern Chesapeake Bay coastline, making it one of the YMCA's largest waterfront camps in the United States.

Why would someone leave that in favor of a desperate YMCA in Modesto?

"The challenge," McGovern said. "There are definitely some challenges, but there are also some great opportunities.

"There is certainly room for growth, more programs to offer, membership drives to conduct and relearning for the commun-ity of what the Y can do."

That would signal a change for Modesto, which downsized staff and shortened hours in the 5½ years since Smith arrived in May 2002. The YMCA's fund balance, or the difference between assets and liabilities, stood at $1.15 million in 2000 but plummeted to $11,548 as of April.

McGovern interviewed in Modesto on Smith's last day. Smith now is chief marketing officer at United Way of Stanislaus, an umbrella fund-raising organization providing money to the YMCA despite Smith's failure to produce audits, as required, for the past two years.

McGovern's brother died since his return to Maryland. Taking the Modesto job means regaining the top of a YMCA branch in the valley he became fond of, he said.

"I want to come back out West," said McGovern. "I'll be back in familiar territory."

Board members in Modesto last week announced hiring a CEO but refused to name him. When The Bee tracked him down without help from the board, McGovern said he "surmised" that board members were giving him time to tell his staff he was leaving Maryland.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.

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