'One man's greed' VA court decision blocks YMCA construction
On August 2, Piedmont YMCA CEO Denny Blank says, he was in a meeting with the contractor who was going to build the new $15 million, 72,000-square-foot YMCA facility in McIntire Park when he got the news.
"We were very, very close," says Blank. "Their bid came in at $180 a square foot, a great price, and we were ready to get rolling."
That's when Blank got word that the Virginia Supreme Court had agreed to hear the so-called Charlottesville Area Fitness Club Operators Association's appeal of dismissal of their lawsuit against the County, which claims they were illegally locked out of the bidding process for construction of a public fitness facility. That lawsuit, and another against the City, were both dismissed in local courts.
"We were stunned by this," says Blank. "It's all because of one man's personal greed, one man trying to block this project because he's afraid of losing his monopoly."
Blank says that ACAC owner Phil Wendel told a YMCA representative [correction: in a previous version of this story it said that Wendel told Blank this directly, but that was misreported] that he would accept the local court's decision and that he "just wanted his day in court."
"But he didn't like the outcome," says Blank. "The sad part is that the community is the real loser here."
Indeed, while Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris says the City– which agreed to lease the land to the YMCA for $1 a year– has no problem with the project moving forward despite the Supreme Court decision, Blank says the bank financing the project will not release the funds until all lawsuits are settled. According to Blank, the case won't likely be heard until sometime in 2012.
The Charlottesville Area Fitness Club Operators Association, once composed of ACAC, Gold's Gym, and Total Performance, now includes only Gold's and ACAC, as Total Performance requested to withdraw from the suit two months ago.
"ACAC and Gold’s Gym are pleased that the Supreme Court of Virginia has chosen to hear the case," says ACAC spokesperson Christine Thalwitz in a statement. "This is but one more step in the judicial process, and it does not preclude the possibility that the project will continue."
Asked to respond to Blank's comment, Wendel declined comment.
"Had there been a fair and open bid process," says Thalwitz, which is the core issue of the lawsuit, "a project for these services would likely be on track today."
ACAC CEO Greg Wells, in comments made to Charlottesville Tomorrow, says the private fitness clubs were "unjustly and unfairly denied" a chance to bid, and that "other solutions" might have been better than the YMCA proposal.
Asked in April what ideas ACAC and Gold's Gym would have offered to compete with the YMCA proposal, Thalwitz offered nothing specific, saying only that a "formal proposal would have been submitted" if they had been allowed to bid.
"We've taken the high road up until this point," says Blank, "and haven't mentioned Mr. Wendel by name. But this community is tired of one man's greed."
"It's sad that corporate interests, interested in minimizing competition and losing customers, are trying to block something that is going to help so many people," says Norris, "particularly lower income families."
Norris points out that he had looked forward to kids at Charlottesville High School having a place right next door to go to, basically free of cost, where they could not only participate in fitness and sports programs, but also take part in the many other Y offerings.
"We did the same thing for the Charlottesville Boys & Girls Club," says Norris, "provided them space for the great services they offer the community, at a low cost to taxpayers."
Indeed, Blank lists 19 municipalities in Virginia that have offered assistance– in the form of attractive land leases and actual funding– to bring new YMCA facilities to their communities (see sidebar).
The Wendel lawsuit isn't the only obstacle this project has faced. Concern over the possible loss of McIntire's softball fields, which Blank says was never part of the YMCA's plans, and resistance from those who were concerned that the project would denude McIntire Park of its green spaces, also had to be overcome.
For Blank, who has been involved with the YMCA in some form for over 20 years, it's hard to understand.
"This is the only place I've ever lived where people have resisted and fought against a YMCA," he says.
“It is difficult to characterize this as anything other than a tax-exempt, taxpayer supported commercial fitness club.” –Phil Wendel in a April 30, 2007 letter to City Council
July 2007: Former Parks & Rec director Mike Svetz tells City Council that if it directs staff to enter into a lease agreement with the YMCA "there is a legal process required, including advertising a public hearing and issuing an RFP"
October 2007-City issues a request for proposals for anyone interested in leasing 3.4 acres of land from the city for the purpose of "developing a non-profit fitness and recreational center of approximately 70,000 square feet.” A public hearing was also held. Neither ACAC or Gold's Gym representatives attend public hearing.
Wester Chester, PA. Daily Local, 2008:
Not everyone is thrilled with the success of the new, bigger YMCA.
Greg Wells, senior vice president for the nearby ACAC in West Goshen, said his fitness club had seen some migration of members to the new YMCA, but he called the impact "de minimis" — meaning minimal.
"We've seen some members leave, and we've seen some come back," said Wells, who attributed a slight membership decline more to the general economic slowdown than to the opening of the larger Y facility.
Outside the ACAC's McDermott Drive facility, a sign reads: "You get what you pay for." But that sign is not directed specifically at the YMCA, Wells said.
"From our perspective, it's a way to differentiate ourselves from the other health clubs in the area," said the vice president of the five-club group of fitness centers. A sixth is slated to open soon in Lynchburg, Va. "There's no reference there against what the Y is about. They have their place, and we have our place."
That said, Wells said ACAC, like most for-profit clubs across the country, finds it difficult to compete against an entity like the Y with its tax advantages.
When asked if the YMCA had evolved from its charitable roots into a fitness center operation, Wells replied, "We share that view. This would be something that you would hear nationwide."
May 2010: The Charlottesville Area Fitness Club Owners’ Association, made up of ACAC, Gold's, and Total Performance, file a law suit against the City and the county, claiming they violated the Virginia Public Procurement Act by not allowing the for-profit clubs to bid on the proposal.