Though it has been almost three weeks after Gainesville City Council members voted to approve the purchase of fitness equipment for the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center, those who oppose it are not backing away quietly.
"We are trying to make noise," said Jennifer Loggins, owner of Bodyplex Fitness in Gainesville. "We want the city to hear us."
Loggins and her husband, Brent, opened Bodyplex in January. They say the city’s decision to turn a 4,400-square-foot meeting room at Frances Meadows into a weight room creates unfair competition for private businesses who already are struggling in a slumping economy.
They have asked for help from the Hall County Board of Commissioners to fight the move, and are circulating a petition to show that others agree. So far, Jennifer Loggins said the document has more than 500 signatures. She hopes to get a few more before she takes it to the City Council in December.
Mike Brown, chief executive officer of the Georgia Mountains YMCA, said he feels equally betrayed by the city’s decision.
Brown says that when the Meadows center was just an idea, the YMCA and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department attempted a joint venture. That plan failed, and the YMCA completed construction on its facility a year ahead of the Frances Meadows center. But the two organizations still promised not to compete with each other and only to "enhance" the other’s amenities.
To keep that promise, Brown said he took an outdoor pool out of an original plan for a 90,000-square-foot facility off Ga. 365, cutting the facility’s size by one-third.
"We did not build an outdoor pool, and they said at the same time, ‘we’re not interested in building a large wellness center, and you know, we can enhance each other,’" Brown said. "So they asked me to come and support it, and I did."
Brown said the two organizations have worked together successfully until now.
When Brown first heard word of a fitness room at Frances Meadows, he asked Michael Graham, the deputy director of Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation Department about it. At the time, Graham said the room would be no bigger than a hotel fitness center.
And though he said the move won’t hurt the YMCA’s membership, Brown called the city’s decision to add fitness equipment at the Meadows center without any discussion with YMCA officials a "slap in the face."
"It’s a slap in the face to the board and to the Y," Brown said. "No, we haven’t done a whole lot together over the last year. Yes, we could be doing more. But the point is, is that when it comes to facilities, we made some agreements publicly — publicly. These weren’t private agreements. Publicly these agreements were made, and now they’re not being honored."
But when it comes to breaking agreements, Graham stops short of saying that Brown started it.
Graham said the YMCA started competing against the city parks department first by creating a youth athletics program and not agreeing to a partnership. And last December, Brown came to Graham to see if the two organizations could work together, Graham said.
"I said ‘well, Mike,’ I said, ‘draft something together ... I’m willing to look at it and see where we can go with this,’" Graham said. "Well, I never heard from Mike."
Graham said he tried to arrange meetings with Brown but never got a response.
"I had planned to discuss with him the idea about what we wanted to do in conversion of the meeting rooms; he would not return my e-mails or my phone calls," Graham said. "I mean, there’s nothing I can do. If they don’t want to talk to me about it, there’s nothing I can do."
When Graham made a proposal to the City Council in late October to add the equipment to the Meadows center, he said it made sense.
"We have been asked by many citizens about fitness equipment, ‘Why don’t you have it? ... I would expect you would have it.’ Even from the very beginning, we were getting that," Graham said.
Since the economic recession has reduced revenues for all city departments, Parks and Recreation officials decided to redirect cash marked for designing future parks to upgrade current facilities instead. Graham’s proposal, approved by the City Council earlier this month, would fill a little-used room with approximately $310,000 worth of LifeFitness brand fitness equipment. The proposal also outlines plans to purchase more chairs for the center’s outdoor Splash Zone, new carpet for the Civic Center and updated playgrounds at other city parks.
And though Loggins said the number of signatures already on the petition shows that people "don’t want their tax dollars to go to a weight room," Graham said some of the opponents of the addition of the fitness center don’t understand how the department will pay for it.
Parks and Recreation is funded with its own millage rate; 0.75 mills of Gainesville taxpayers’ property tax rate is specifically dedicated to the department. Its budget is not connected to the city school system and receives limited money from the city’s general budget.
Graham’s upgrade proposal would be funded by impact fees, taxes on developers that go to fire, police and recreation, and from money left over from the department’s budget in previous years.
Graham points to a number of people who already attend Frances Meadows and have asked for the fitness room amenity in a "Your Parks, Your Voice" survey.
"Citizens have made a valuable investment in Frances Meadows Center, and you know, we’re trying to make sure that we operate it in an effective, efficient and equitable manner, and this is what the citizens have asked for ..." Graham said. "If they put the tax dollars into it to build it, and then they’re asking for fitness equipment in it, then it seems to me that’s the most effective way to run the facility."
But when the issue came to a vote at the City Council’s Nov. 3 meeting, Jennifer Loggins, along with the president of the YMCA’s board of directors and a representative from Fitness Forum, asked the council to oppose it. They said the addition would create unfair competition and could hurt their businesses. Jennifer Loggins said the money could be better spent adding to city greenways and other outdoor parks.
"As private business owners, we brought jobs to this city, to the county that pay taxes," Brent Loggins said. "We have a huge problem with having to pay our competitors’ taxes. It’s not right and it’s not the avenue that the city needs to start, because I promise there will be no end to it. Next thing you’re going to have is a government-owned grocery story or a government-owned clothing store. Where does it stop?"
The measure passed 4-1.
While Graham has spent the days since meeting with Loggins and Brown, he still does not feel adding fitness equipment is creating competition, just filling a need in the community.
"It’s kind of like day camps," Graham said. "Everybody offers day camps, because, again, there’s a need out there that needs to be met."