Aging fitness buffs upset over Living Well closing
Published: Friday, January 31, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 7:30 p.m.
Jim Preston and Joe Pisani have been playing handball together for three decades, a friendship forged by mutual interest in staying fit.
About Living Well
237 current members
Youngest = 25
Oldest = 91
50 percent of members = ages 25-53
27 members are retirees
Budget overruns: $39,941 in 2009-10; $9,319 in 2010-11; $64,728 in 2011-12; $81,000 in 2012-13
The two seventy-something University of Florida professors — Preston the microbiologist and Pisani the advertising prof — didn't normally travel in the same circles. They met in the bowels of Yon Hall, at an underfunded fitness club started 30 years ago for faculty and staff by the recently deceased aerospace engineering professor Ed Walsh.
Originally dubbed The Faculty 100, the Living Well Fitness Center, which occupies a 7,500-square-foot space that was once home to the Florida football team training table, has been a gritty tradition and cultural cornerstone for hundreds of faculty and staff since its creation in 1983.
"We realized we both liked handball, and organized our schedules to go to Living Well together and then play handball," Preston said at a recent workout.
In June, the 30-year-old cultural institution known as Living Well will cease to exist.
Living Well has been plagued by several years of budget overruns caused by dropping revenue due to declining membership. It's been targeted for extinction twice since 2009 and saved at the last minute. Living Well has finally hit the wall.
"Nobody wants to close Living Well. Everyone is sympathetic," said Mike Reid, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance since last July. "But it's a stupid waste of money when there are so many other things we can do with that money."
When Patrick Bird — currently the fitness director at Oak Hammock — became the first dean of the College of Health and Human Performance in 1986, he renamed the gym the Living Well Fitness Center. Bird is still a member of Living Well, records show.
The center was run by HHP until Human Resources stepped in to rescue the fitness center during the last round of budget cut discussions in 2012, shelling out $80,000 to make it solvent.
Some members don't know why HR can't continue to subsidize the fitness center.
Records show it has been running in the red since the 2008-09 fiscal year, when expenses ran $6,500 over revenue. Since 2009, membership sales revenue has dropped from $91,000 in 2008-09 to $71,662 in 2012-13.
At the same time, the center has consistently run over budget — by $39,000 in 2009-10 and by more than $80,000 last year.
The budget overruns have forced the fitness center's manager, Cassie Macias, to cut staff to a skeleton crew, cut back hours and continue to repair obsolete equipment with spit and glue, Dean Reid said.
Some of the members, like retired architecture professor Ira Winarsky, blame the former dean and Macias as the cause of the budget overruns. When Macias cut back hours of operation and donated some members' favorite equipment to Bell High School and stored other equipment in a surplus warehouse, membership started to drop off, Winarsky said.
Macias was brought in by former HHP dean Steven Dorman two years ago to try to turn the gym around, by trimming costs and trying to increase membership, Reid said.
"I think she's been responsibly doing her job with the authority she's got," Reid said. Unfortunately, he added, the money just hasn't been there.
UF auditors investigated the complaint about the equipment donation, and found no wrongdoing. Macias explained that she needed to get the aging equipment out of the way for newer equipment being donated by the UF Department of Recreation Sports.
The donation to Bell High was actually suggested by Janice Douglas, executive secretary in HHP and she happened to be acquainted with the athletic director at that school.
The other surplus equipment was too old to be worth repairing anymore, Macias told auditors.
Auditors found that the equipment was disposed of in accordance with university directives and procedures, although there were some recordkeeping irregularities. Recommendations were given to tighten up procedures and improve oversight.
When Living Well shuts down, Reid said, Macias has said she will pursue opportunities outside UF.
Membership has fluctuated at under 300 over the past few years, with the number of expiring members greater than the number of renewed and new memberships. Membership dropped from 280 in 2010 to 248 in June 2012, and is currently at 237.
Reid said he looked at several options to save the underperforming Living Well Fitness Center, including having Human Resources or Gator Wellness take it over entirely as part of their mission to facilitate wellness, but the numbers didn't work out.
One of the biggest expenses would have involved renovating the fitness center and buying new exercise equipment to bring it up to the same standards as the Student Fitness Center 50 yards away or the Southwest Recreational Complex on Museum Road.
No decision has been made about the space yet, but Reid said he will have a seat at the table during discussions about how to put the space to its best use.
In years past, the Living Well Fitness Center has been used as a sort of living lab for research on fitness, exercise and aging, using the faculty and staff for lab research.
Reid said if things go the way he wants, that legacy could continue if the space can be converted to a human research lab.
"When Living Well goes away, the space will be available and we can renovate it as a research facility," Reid said.
Such a use would fall in line with Reid's proposal, along with the colleges of Public Health and Human Performance and Medicine, to pursue a pre-eminence initiative related to skeletal muscle biology. They estimate it will cost close to $600,000 to hire additional faculty and hope to generate $1.35 million in research grants.
As for a rumor going around that Living Well would become an animal testing lab, Reid said, "We don't need those facilities for labs."
The 237 members of Living Well won't be left hanging. Once their membership expires, they will transfer to UF RecSports as full members without increasing their membership fees, said David Bowles, director of recreational sports at UF.
UF has invested millions in state of the art recreational facilities, starting with the $3.6 million Student Recreation and Fitness Center in 1991. Three years later, UF opened the Southwest Recreation Center for $7 million. That was followed by a $5 million expansion in 2001 followed by a $16.3 million expansion in 2010 to bring the facility to a total 145,000 square feet, Bowles said.
All of it was funded by the student Capital Improvement Trust Fund, he said.
About 90 percent of RecSports' $6.5 million annual budget comes from activity and services fees, essentially a tax that students pay with their tuition for services throughout campus, he said. Membership from about 300 faculty and staff members and other fees make up the remaining 10 percent, he said.
UF has about 14,000 faculty and staff altogether. And it has 50,000 students who can use the Recreational Sports facilities.
Some Living Well members aren't so bedazzled by the gleaming new equipment of UF RecSports. They like their old exercise lair, the familiar equipment and the ability to exercise away from undergraduates.
"If it wasn't for this place, I'd be dead," said Otto Johnston, professor emeritus of Germanic and Slavic Languages, explaining that his daily exercise regimen helped him survive a heart attack two years ago.
Wayne Benham, 58, works as a lab technician at the Student Health Center near the fitness center. He works out while waiting for his wife to pick him up.
"It kind of broadsided me," Benham said when he got word of the shutdown. "I was completely caught off guard."
Benham is more comfortable working with a crowd his age or older. "It's a different group of people," he said. "I don't know how this group would merge with the younger student group."
Preston said he will definitely take advantage of the offer, but he said it won't be the same. He believes that UF is still losing something important for its faculty — the ability to get together, work out and talk shop, sharing ideas between faculty who wouldn't normally interact.
"It provided a medium to casually discuss professional interests and then make connections," Preston said.
For example, Preston met entomologist Don Dixon at the fitness center. Turns out the two had a shared interest in nematodes, wound up developing a project together and got funding. Their research has provided the scientific basis for using Pasteuria microbes in fighting nematodes, and the foundation for products developed by Pasteuria Bioscience.
"One of the unique things about Living Well is that it's sort of like a faculty club that way," Preston said. "That was the closest thing we had."
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