NEWS- Sudden sag: Women-only club shuts down
On August 28, members of New Fitness for Ladies health club in Seminole Square got fit in a new way: fit to be tied. That morning they learned that their club had suddenly locked its doors, leaving them in the lurch and club employees out of a job.
"Darn it," exclaimed one member who arrived for her workout to find a sign posted on the door. "This is the least expensive gym around. It's a shame she couldn't keep it open."
"She" is Roanoke-based owner Karen Carpenter, owner of three central Virginia New Fitness franchises. Besides Charlottesville, there were two in Roanoke, and one in Lynchburg; but one Roanoke club had already closed in May.
Although the Charlottesville closing came as a shock, several members say they've been aware of the club's financial difficulties for months. In May, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, with Carpenter citing "systematic management problems" including the death of her chief financial officer, as well as unexpected operating costs and a decrease in revenue.
The filing lists debts of between $500,000 and $1 million and assets of $100,000 to $500,000, and describes Carpenter's intention to consolidate the two clubs in the Roanoke area and to sell the Charlottesville and Lynchburg clubs.
Amanda Hazlett says she was told about the bankruptcy when she renewed her membership in May, but was assured when she signed the contract that it was simply a "reorganization" and that while the club could be sold, it would not affect her membership.
Nonetheless, Hazlett says the financial difficulties became obvious as bathrooms went unstocked and broken toilets were not fixed.
"Things in the gym weren't going great," says member Sarah Kirchner. "You could tell the business wasn't doing well."
Both Hazlett, 28, and Kirchner, 27, say they were willing to overlook a few inconveniences for the unique exercise environment the club offered– and the affordable rates.
"It filled a specific niche in the community," Kirchner says, citing a "really neat class for women who were retirement age."
The price also set it apart. Hazlett and Kirchner say they paid approximately $20 per month– about one fourth the cost of an ACAC individual membership, and only half the cost at Gold's Gym.
New Fitness is not the first all-women's workout facility to go belly up in the last year or so. Ladies Workout Express opened on Pantops in 2003, promising that women could burn up to 900 calories in a 30-minute workout in the club's bright pink and purple room. UVA fitness expert Glenn Gaesser suggested the claim might have been exaggerated.
In 30 minutes, Gaesser said, "Lance Armstrong cannot burn 900 calories." The club went out of business in 2004.
New Fitness made no such claims, but it did offer an all-female atmosphere. "The sole purpose in going is to work out; you're not worried about impressing abybody else," explains Hazlett.
While Kirchner had been preparing to renew her New Fitness membership, she says she's now relieved she didn't. Hazlett, however, wasn't so lucky. Taking advantage of a special deal in May, she paid approximately $300 for a 15-month membership. While members who paid monthly are now free from their financial obligation, members like Hazlett are uncertain about reimbursement.
Carpenter's New Fitness website, newfit.net, directs members like Hazlett who might deserve a refund to contact the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Neither Carpenter nor her Roanoke-based attorney, A. Carter Magee Jr., returned the Hook's calls by press time, but local attorney Doug Little says there may be good news for members like Hazlett. A 1984 law, the Virginia Health Spa Act, requires that Virginia health clubs post a bond with the state to cover member refunds in the event a club folds.
And according to Michael Wright at the Office of Consumer Affairs, New Fitness does have a $30,000 bond on file for its Charlottesville club.
Wright says members can download a claim form from the website, vdacs.virginia.gov, or call 800-552-9963.
But while news of the bond may soften the financial blow for members, it doesn't lessen Hazlett's disappointment at losing her club.
"There was one instructor in particular who was really motivating," she recalls, "and it made it fun to go and work out, even on days when I didn't want to be there. There's really no other place like it."
New Fitness for Ladies member Heather Roach arrived at the club on Monday only to learn it had closed.
PHOTO BY WILL WALKER