Lap-swimming seniors and doggy-paddling children returned to the pool at the Town of Tonawanda’s Aquatic and Fitness Center in October, seven months after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the facility to close.
But on the other side of the building, the door to the fitness center is chained and padlocked and black plastic covers the windows.
The center’s gym remains closed for now and – some members and employees fear – for good.
The town considers the Aquatic and Fitness Center a recreational jewel. It was built in the early 1990s partly as a World University Games venue and, for years afterward, proved popular and financially viable.
“There’s nothing like it,” said John Bedaska, 70, a member since the year after the center opened. “It’s more than just a gym.”
But in recent years, the center has faced slipping membership, difficulty in hiring lifeguards and growing competition from commercial gyms. The town loses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the facility.
The coronavirus only has amplified these issues and has prompted an outcry from members who don’t want to lose the facility. Now, town officials and residents are collaborating on a plan for the center’s future.
They’re trying to figure out how to safely reopen the gym, better market the venue to prospective members, make it more of a community gathering place, stem its losses – and figure out whether it still makes sense for the town to operate this facility.
"It's memberships. We've got to justify it to the public that it's worth what we're spending," said Councilman William C. Conrad III, who worked at the center as a teenager and college student and now keeps tabs on the recreational program for the Town Board.
Amateur games legacy
The Aquatic and Fitness Center sits along Sheridan Drive and Delaware Road on the former site of the town’s outdoor Delaware Pool.
The town in the late 1980s had planned to replace that pool with a $1.6 million indoor pool. But Councilman Bill Miller convinced his fellow Town Board members to construct a larger pool facility that could host the water polo competition for the 1993 World University Games held in the Buffalo area, according to Buffalo News articles from this period.
Organizers of the amateur sports event agreed to cover $1.5 million of the $4.5 million cost. The town borrowed most of the cost of the venue but also received at least $900,000 in state and county grants.
The pool was built to host multiple water polo matches at the same time and, at its full size, is just short of the official length of an Olympic-class pool, Conrad said.
There’s also a kiddie pool, whirlpool, steam room and sauna. The center was built with a small workout area that the town has expanded several times since the venue opened in 1991, said Mark Campanella Sr., superintendent of youth, parks and recreation for the town.
Conrad and Campanella said no other town or village in the area operates a facility of this kind. It is home base to the Town of Tonawanda Aquettes synchronized swimming program and the Tonawanda Titans Swim Club.
Popularity has waned
Even as World University Games organizers lagged in paying back the town, Tonawanda officials in the 1990s described the center as financially sustainable.
This changed over the past decade or so. The town couldn’t provide figures on membership totals but officials and people who use the gym say fewer people go there to work out and swim nowadays.
While the exercise bikes and treadmills can get busy enough that workers set time limits for their use, the free-weight area and other parts of the gym get far less use, Campanella said.
The proliferation of other gyms is a big reason why. When the facility opened 30 years ago, it basically competed against the Buffalo Athletic Club and the YMCA.
Since then, numerous commercial gyms have opened in and near the town – such as Catalyst Fitness, Planet Fitness and LA Fitness – as well as venues offering more personalized training.
"I mean, they're like pizza shops," said Dan Crangle, a longtime former Town Board member and point person on recreational programming. “It’s hard to compete with some of these franchises.”
Many have newer equipment and offer cheaper rates, particularly for people who don't want to swim, he said.
In response, the town in the last year or two began offering patrons the chance to pay separately for the use of the pool or the gym .
Losses are growing
The facility's financial problems predate the Covid-19 pandemic.
Revenues from membership fees, pool rentals and other sources have slipped slightly since 2016, to $1 million in the town's 2020 adopted budget, while expenses to run the facility have risen to more than $1.4 million in the current year's budget.
But that figure doesn't include benefits paid to Aquatic and Fitness Center employees. Taking into account this and other costs such as pool chemicals, town officials said, the annual deficit approaches $600,000.
"The losses are just getting too high for us to sustain," Tonawanda Supervisor Joseph Emminger said.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the facility had six full-time and 186 part-time workers. Today, while the gym remains closed, the venue has two full-time and 91 part-time workers.
The town, following state public health guidelines, closed the facility in March. The town reopened the pool on Oct. 1 – without the whirlpool, steam room and sauna – but opted to keep the gym closed.
Conrad and Campanella said it wouldn't make financial sense to reopen under the state's 33% capacity limit and enforcing public health rules would be difficult.
The indefinite closing outraged some members, who showed up to the Sept. 14 Town Board meeting to raise their concerns. They noted the gym serves a wide range of ages and is a community hub for its members.
"In my opinion, nothing really compares," said Adam Moore, 26, a member since he was a teenager who has also worked there as a personal trainer.
Rumors began to spread that the town never planned to reopen the gym and – behind the locked door and blacked-out windows – workers had removed the exercise equipment. That's not the case, as Conrad and Campanella showed a Buffalo News reporter on a recent visit.
Planning for the future
The town has formed an Aquatic and Fitness Center working group to study how best to revive the facility and put it on a better financial footing.
Town officials say they don't need the center, the town's golf courses or its ice arenas to make a profit but the center can't continue to lose this much money.
The newly formed committee wants to better market the venue to the public – including to seniors, families and major employers in the town such as GM and Tops Markets – and find new ways to recruit more lifeguards.
"Talks are continuing and work is being done by concerned citizens to spread the word," said Jeff Gemmer, a retired longtime coach at Canisius High School and leading member of the grassroots group.
"We need to expose this facility to the general public," said Campanella, though the town no longer has a dedicated marketing budget for the center.
Some recommendations are more expensive, such as restoring the program providing child care while members work out, installing a climbing wall or adding a wave generator or other features to the kiddie pool. The facility also needs a new roof, Conrad said, a capital investment costing roughly $1 million.
"There are a lot of outdated machines and equipment," said Moore, who also is a member of the working group.
Conrad said the town is considering all of its options, including retaining a private operator for at least some part of the venue or eliminating all membership fees – a move meant to draw in more users that would raise the operating losses to $1.5 million annually.
Still, Conrad and Campanella say they expect the town can reopen the gym if and when the state raises the capacity limit to 50% or 75%, though it may not look exactly the same.
"I think we need some more energy in here," Conrad said.