Friday, December 10, 2010

Does FitWorks fit districtís mission?

Some say facility competes unnecessarily with private businesses


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Marie Tanner works out at the Blaine County Recreation Districtís FitWorks fitness center in Hailey. Though the center has come under criticism for competing with local businesses, fitness center directors say there is likely enough business to go around. Photo by David N. Seelig

For an area that survives economically on outdoor recreation, the Wood River Valley may seem inundated with indoor fitness centers.

A quick count reveals a myriad of options, including the Wood River Community YMCA, Zenergy and High Altitude Fitness in Ketchum, as well as the Blaine County Fitness Center, High Altitude Fitness, 5B Crossfit in Hailey, and a number of private Pilates and yoga studios.

The opening of yet another fitness center in Hailey, the FitWorks Studio operated by the Blaine County Recreation District, has prompted some residents to question whether the district, a taxpayer-funded organization, should be competing with private businesses.

No, says Hailey resident Steve Edsall, a member of the privately owned Blaine County Fitness Center.

"The timing was really bad," he said. "With the economy, it doesn't seem like the time to open something to compete with private businesses."

Part of the concern regarding the new fitness center is that the district is 40 percent funded by county taxpayers, who pay it a little under 2 percent of their property taxes.

The new center's construction costs totaled $340,000 (not $500,000, as was previously reported), in part because the recycling of previously unused locker rooms at the Community Campus into a workout space helped keep costs down.

College of Southern Idaho and the Blaine County School District contributed $30,000 and $140,000 of the renovation expenses, respectively.

The remaining $170,000 came from the district's reserves, a combination of taxpayer dollars, fundraising and user fees from the trails and sports leagues operated by the district.

Edsall said that as the owner of a small business (Sawtooth Equine Service in Bellevue), he doesn't feel comfortable with his tax dollars going toward a center that competes with other small businesses.

"They could have used the space for something more appropriate that a private business doesn't provide," Edsall said. "What are they going to do next, rent skis or something?"

The district does, in fact, rent cross-country skis and other equipment out of Galena Lodge, north of Ketchum.

Hailey resident Roger Olson, another member of the Blaine County Fitness Center, said he agrees that FitWorks could harm smaller facilities in the valley.

"I'm kind of surprised that those kind of comments weren't brought up at the time [of the center's development,]" Olson said.

The center is a part of the district's 10-year plan, developed following a failed bond election in 1999. The $11.85 million Community Recreation Bond would have funded a larger district workout facility in Hailey, among other projects.

Tim Hamilton, president of the Recreation District's board of directors, said that after the bond was rejected, the board decided it needed to reassess public need.

"We thought, 'Well, wait a minute. Did we lose our way here?'" Hamilton said.

The public meetings lasted months and revealed a "huge" need for a fitness center in Hailey, according to Recreation District Executive Director Jim Keating.

"That need has been growing and growing over the past few years," he said.

At the time of the plan's development, the only workout facility in Hailey was the Blaine County Fitness Center on Maple Street. The Wood River Y in Ketchum would not open for another seven years.

The plan, approved in a public hearing by the district's three elected board members, included a list of priorities topped by a Hailey community center. According to the plan, the priorities were developed following a 2001 recreation needs survey of Blaine County residents.

Len Harlig, who was a county commissioner at the time and was actively involved in the plan's development, said he doesn't recall discussion regarding competition with private workout centers. The plan itself does not mention such competition. However, Harlig said, times have changed.

"There is more day-to-day emphasis on economics and divisive politics than on community health," he said. "My hope is that the economy recovers soon and we can spend our time more productively on reducing obesity ... rather than playing 'competition' politics and creating controversy as a means of recreational activity."

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As for criticism that the center is tax-funded, Keating said the center's maintenance, including leases on the equipment, will be fully funded through user fees of the district's various activities.

"Most of the things we've stretched to do have been funded through fundraising and user fees," he said. "We require sponsorship to pull these things off."

Keating said costs of the new center are folded into the Recreation District's expenses, giving the center financial flexibility. Fees from the district's various leagues and trail passes could be used to fund FitWorks' expenses.

Hamilton said he expects the center will be fully financially sustainable.

"We can't raise taxes on anybody, so it kind of has to be self-sustaining," he said. "If we have a couple hundred people join, we'll be in good shape."

Teresa Beahen-Lipman, CEO of the Wood River Y, said that even though the economy has taken a toll on all businesses in the valley, she doesn't think the Y's membership numbers will suffer because of FitWorks, due to the Y's sliding-scale pay system, known as the Open Doors Program.

"Some of our members can only go to the Y because of our Open Doors Program," she said.

She said up to 65 percent of the Y's members have been on financial assistance, and the current number stands at 54 percent. FitWorks does not offer such a sliding scale, instead offering day passes and low flat rates for basic services.

But FitWorks' impact on private businesses may be a different story, as reports vary whether there is enough demand to go around.

"It's a tough question to ask during this economic crisis," Beahen-Lipman said. "If we weren't in this economic crisis, then absolutely yes, [there is enough demand]."

Alex Margolin, owner of Hailey-based 5B Crossfit, said his business likely won't be affected by the new center.

"There are 6,000 people between Hailey and Bellevue," Margolin said. "If [the other gyms] are doing a good job, they should all be doing fine."

The business that is likely closest to FitWorks is the Blaine County Fitness Center. According to some of its members, the center has a loyal following, but price may be an issue.

Blaine County Fitness currently charges $37.50 per person per month for a family membership, with student and senior seasonal passes running $40 a month. FitWorks' basic membership, which includes access to the equipment and gymnasium, is $30 per person per month for adults and $25 for seniors.

Both the current and former owners of Blaine County Fitness declined to comment on whether the new center would affect their business. However, Hamilton said the Recreation District doesn't intend to shut anyone down.

"It's not predatory," he said. "To say you're not going to take a few members away from other places is not a true statement, but that's not our intent."

Margolin and Beahen-Lipman said they have each had only one member leave to work out at FitWorks in the past month, though they do not view the moves as permanent. Beahen-Lipman said the Y member put her membership on hold, and Margolin said the Crossfit member works for the district and would likely come back.

Both Beahen-Lipman and Margolin said the role of the new center seems to be to get people who aren't currently working out to start. Because of that goal, both said, they support the district and its mission.

"I'm happy to have them on board," Margolin said. "The more people who are getting in shape, the better."

Keating said the mission of the Recreation District is to "inspire healthy, active recreation."

To that end, the district has been working on joint programs with the Y and 5B Crossfit. These collaborations are in addition to its partnerships with College of Southern Idaho and Sun Valley Tae Kwon Do, both of which run classes through the district's facilities.

"Frankly, we're OK if we're not the ones providing the program," Keating said. "We're really trying to inspire a healthy community for people who need it."

Hamilton said the new fitness center is not slated for expansion and is mostly a way to encourage people to expand their recreation into other spaces such as the Recreation District's trails system.

"It is what it is. We're out of space," he said.

And at the end of the day, Hamilton said, he believes the district's fitness center is justified by the community's need for it.

"As far as representing the taxpayers, I'm pretty proud of what we've done," he said.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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