Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer announced earlier this month that health and fitness centers – like the one at WCC – will finally reopen. Gyms, spas and health clubs were closed by Executive Order in March.
The revised Executive Order, which took effect September 9, allows health and fitness centers to operate at 25% capacity. They must also adhere to other regulations, including:
- Using best efforts to provide opportunities for patrons to exercise outdoors.
- Maintaining accurate records, including date and time of entry and exit, names of patrons and contact information, to aid with contact tracing.
- Configuring workout stations or implement protocols to enable six feet of distance between individuals during exercise sessions.
- Reducing indoor class sizes to the maximum indoor social gathering size.
- Mandating facial coverings at all times except when swimming. Face shields are not sufficient.
- Regularly disinfecting exercise equipment, including immediately after use. If patrons are expected to disinfect, post signs encouraging patrons to disinfect equipment.
- Making hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, soap, etc., available
- Ensuring that ventilation systems operate properly.
- Increasing outdoor air as much as possible.
- Closing steam rooms and saunas, hot tubs and cold plunge pools.
Health and Fitness Center model needs rethinking
The last item will be a special disappointment to the Board, given the “special interest” that at least two Trustees showed in the operational status of the Women’s Hot Tub last year. More to the point, WCC has spent $400,000 on repairing the Men’s and Women’s hot tubs in the 15 months. And they’re likely to remain unusable until the pandemic substantially resolves.
Actually, a number of the restrictions will pose problems for WCC. To make the Health and Fitness center financially viable, WCC has to oversubscribe the building.
“I think I mentioned in the Strategic Value Presentation that we had growth in the Health and Fitness Center. That’s strong, and that’s really important that it stay strong because we need to return all of that margin we get from the Fitness Center to help support the debt service, which is about $1.1 million a year, and the deferred maintenance.”
– Bill Johnson, September 24, 2019
On a good day, WCC cannot pay the bills on the HFC without oversubscribing the building and running it at full capacity. I’ve written about this before, but the approach causes the facilities to wear out faster than planned. That strategy increases the building’s expenses – which is another way of saying that it decreases the margin that is so necessary for making the whole operation work.
Current EO makes break-even operation impossible
Under the current Executive Order, there is no way the Health and Fitness Center can be self-supporting. When you consider the HFC’s debt, regular maintenance, and deferred maintenance, it doesn’t appear that the building can break even when times are good.
But “breaking even” is not and never was the goal of the building. The building is a speculative venture that was supposed to generate revenue. If all the HFC can do is break even, it’s a failure. Breaking even means that WCC is financially no better off with the building than without it. There was no reason to build it.
The post-pandemic outlook for the health and fitness industry is not bright. It seems unlikely that the HFC can achieve the subscription rate required to turn a profit. At the end of the day, that was the purpose of the HFC – to make a profit. Not to meet an unmet need of the community. Not to improve the lives of the students who attend WCC.
The Board of Trustees borrowed millions of dollars to build the HFC and obligated the taxpayers to pay back millions more.
And for what?
The Board of Trustees owes the taxpayers of Washtenaw County an exit strategy for the HFC. They have saddled us with millions of dollars of debt and ongoing maintenance costs, and a broken business model. We deserve to know how long the Board intends to allow this diversion of educational dollars to continue.
Photo Credit: Unknown Net Photography , via Flickr