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We can’t have it both ways

By Staff | Apr 15, 2009

To the editor,

It was with much sadness that I learned that the Sanibel Fitness Center (SFC) will be closing its doors in late April after 19 years on our island. I’m particularly sad because this didn’t need to happen and should not have happened.

SFC and its owner, Meta Goodwin, survived Hurricane Charley in 2004 as well as a disastrous fire in 2006. But they could not survive direct competition from the taxpayer-subsidized Sanibel Recreation Center (SRC).

Several years ago, when we were all asked to vote on the “new Rec Center” referendum, we were told that a new facility would not compete with existing Sanibel businesses. We were also told that no weights or aerobic equipment (treadmills, ellipticals, etc.), other than those which were in the original gym, would be available so as not to compete directly with SFC (or Curves, for that matter). At a hearing almost two years ago, Meta warned about the consequences to her business if SRC set up its own fitness room with brand new equipment: in essence, when combined with low prices it would tip the scales for many of her clients. But the juggernaut was rolling and, in the name of “progress,” was not to be denied. And those who should have been asking some hard questions about the future and level playing fields clearly did not do so.

As Meta predicted, during the past year or so numerous long-term SFC members departed for the new center (with its brand new fitness room) due in part to the huge differential in family membership prices. And to add insult to injury, winter visitors – SFC’s most profitable customers – flocked to the new center due to a 50 percent day-pass differential. In an absurd comedy of errors, we were deliberately subsidizing visitors at taxpayer expense while at the same time undermining a popular local business (which also happens to be a taxpayer). This price differential for visitors was recently eliminated; but, in SFC’s case, the damage had already been done.

As a long-time member, I’ve always viewed SFC as a unique combination of work and play. Its casual environment is a great place to connect with old friends and make new ones. There’s never a parking problem, there’s rarely a wait for equipment, and many popular exercise classes are offered. It’s a place where some of Sanibel’s most senior citizens always feel comfortable; many of them will certainly find it intimidating to transition to a more institutional gym environment. In short, it’s places like the Sanibel Fitness Center that make our island special, not merely a carbon copy of our neighbors up and down the coast.

What happened here is truly not the Sanibel way. As the Sanibel Charter states, The city of Sanibel cherishes its cultural, social, ecological and economic diversity, and will endeavor to maintain it. Our city has a long and distinguished record of wise and compassionate local government that has essentially remained true to the city’s charter. Rarely has the easy way been taken when the right way was obvious. All Sanibel residents should hope that this situation is but a single embarrassing footnote to that proud history.

Small business failures are happening in record numbers in 2009. But not for the reasons that the Sanibel Fitness Center has failed after 19 years!

Theoretically, a fitness center and a recreation center have a different focus and appeal. In this case, both could have coexisted and prospered side-by-side on Sanibel in a spirit of mutual cooperation. Many of us would have joined both facilities, each for a different reason. And all of Sanibel, as well as its visitors, would have been the winner.

Soon another small business that provided a valuable service to Sanibel residents will be gone. And for those of us who are disenfranchised, our options are truly limited – using SRC’s fitness room with limited capacity and no prospects for expansion (if we can find a place to park) or going off-island.

I know I speak for many other islanders when I say that “working out on Sanibel will never again be quite as much fun.” I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is one. What I do know is that we should all be ashamed.

We can’t have it both ways here. We should either practice what we preach or stop preaching and just throw small businesses under the train whenever it suits our purpose to do so.

Albert F. Nagel