Fruita fitness fray: Health club owner raises concerns over competition from center

Center Pool
Center Pool

The opening of the Fruita Community Center marked the culmination of years of planning — as well as contention that resulted at one point in a tie vote over whether or not to increase the municipal sales tax rate to fund the facility.

Voters finally approved a 1 percent sales tax hike in the spring of 2009, just as the effects of the Great Recession hit Mesa County with full force. Lagging tax collections forced the City of Fruita to delay construction on the community center, but the doors finally opened in January.

The center encompasses nearly 3,600 square feet and includes an aerobic dance studio, exercise equipment, running track and swimming pool — along with a branch of the Mesa County Public Library. The center provides all kinds of activities for people who might otherwise complain there’s little to do in Fruita.

Still, some contention lingers because the public center has reportedly cut into the business of a private enterprise.

“We were a booming business. We were doing extremely well,” says Brooke Ray, co-owner of the Fruita Health Club, located less than a half mile from the community center.

Ray says her family bought the business in December 2009 and subsequently upgraded equipment, extended hours of operation and offered more fitness programs. Membership increased by more than 580 members in 12 months, Ray says, even as the staff grew from eight to 27. “We made a lot of changes and base 90 percent of the success on customer service.”

But the number of customers has dropped about

40 percent — to 800 members —since the public center opened. Ray has cut staffing by three.

Discussions with city officials in mid-March failed to produce the pool pass to the center Ray had hoped to offer her members. “Unfortunately, not,” she says.

The proposed pool pass was Ray’s latest attempt to seek city help for her business, much as the city had reached out to residents who worked on a recreation center plan for more than a decade. She thought that if some of her clients also could use a discounted pool pass at the public center, she might retain more customers. City officials say such a plan would have opened Pandora’s box.

“We’d sold 3,100 passes already,” says Fruita City Manager Clint Kinney. Because the pass holders weren’t offered discounts, Kinney says it would be unfair to offer discounts to Ray’s customers.

Prior to the pool issue, Ray expressed concerns about the manner in which the city competes with her business. The size of the community center didn’t trouble her. It was the modern equipment and services offered there that gave the community center an edge over her facility, she said.

The size of the aerobic and dance studio is 1,300 square feet, a size city officials say Ray should be able to accept. That’s because original plans called for 1,900 square feet.

Moreover, Ray had ample opportunity to comment prior to construction, Kinney says. “The feasibility study was done four months before the election. And we re-did the study in the summer of 2009. I think we delivered what we predicted.”

Fruita Mayor Ken Henry says he’s been involved in promoting the community center for four years. Henry says Ray bought the health club after the city had broken ground on the center.

Kinney and Henry acknowledge the community center would operate in the red were it not for the support of tax dollars. But they don’t see the operation as a case of unfair competition,

“When we went to a vote of the people, we were upfront that community centers don’t make money,” Kinney says. “They voted to tax themselves. It was a community issue.”

“I’m as pro business as anyone,” says Henry, who’s worked in the real estate and mortgage business in Mesa County. He adds that the Fruita City Council earmarks $30,000 to $40,000 annually toward local economic development efforts.

Kinney says he thought the community center and health club operation could compliment each other.

Similar discussions and disputes have occurred in Grand Junction over the years as efforts to gain voter approval for a tax to fund a community center there have gone nowhere at the ballot box.

Sally Schaefer, a former chief executive officer of Hilltop Community Resources and leader in efforts to gain support for a public center, touts the Grand Junction center as an opportunity to offer the same kinds of amenities as such cities as Delta and Cortez. As is the case in Fruita, Schaefer rebuffs contentions a public center might harm private athletic clubs. On the contrary, she says public centers could increase the number of people who exercise and that many of them would move on to join private clubs to enjoy more specialized services. A Grand Junction center might also offer such unique features as a warm-water leisure pool and meeting rooms for teen-agers and seniors.

Some private club owners, including Dale Reece of Crossroads Fitness in Grand Junction, share the same view as Day and contend public centers unfairly compete with private clubs. Reece attended public presentations of the community center plan in Grand Junction and points out the center would consume tax dollars and also charge a monthly fee not much different from the fees charged at private clubs.

In Fruita, the costs and benefits vary at both the public center and private health club. Factors such as age and special discounts can affect rates, but an adult pass at the community center normally sells for $30 a month. At the private club, fees are $25 a month.

Ray says Kinney talked with her about the potential for offering community center customers the option of purchasing a discounted pass to use some services at the private health club. Still, she’s not happy with the way discussions have progressed.

The disappointments haven’t stopped Ray and her staff from continuing to develop strategies to bolster business, though. “We’re continuing to toss around ideas,” Ray says. “We’re meeting almost daily.”