After a recent meeting of the Huntersville town commissioners, Huntersville Family Fitness & Aquatics might go under new management starting in 2012.
The contract for Health & Sport Works, the Davidson-based company that has managed the fitness center for 10 years, will expire June 30. Town commissioners voted 3-2 at their Feb. 7 meeting to have staff write the requirements for the fitness center's management.
Commissioners Charles Jeter and Sarah McAuley opposed the item.
"I'm trying to be a good steward of taxpayers' money," said Commissioner Beth Caulfield, who added the item to the meeting's agenda. "Even though we don't have to do this, the question is, 'Why wouldn't we?'"
The fitness facility, which boasts more than 8,000 members, is paid in part by the hotel, motel and prepared food tax. Caulfield said although this isn't a tax imposed by the town, she still feels a responsibility to town residents to make sure the money is well spent.
Dee Jetton, the executive director of HFFA, said HSW has already renewed its contract twice with the town. Neither of those times did the contract go out to bid, she said.
Still, Jetton said the company plans to re-apply to remain HFFA's management company.
"It's certainly our desire to continue working with the facility, but I completely understand the process of verifying," she said. "We feel like we are certainly well prepared to respond to whatever the situation is."
Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville partnered with the town to build the 88,000-square-foot fitness center in 2001.
The center includes three pools, a full-court gymnasium, a fitness center and a group exercise studio.
Within the first several months of opening, the town approached HSW about taking over operations of the facility, said Jetton.
Since then, the fitness center has steadily grown in memberships as well as profitability, said Jetton.
When the town loaned $5 million 10 years ago to construct the facility, it stipulated that the facility needed to move toward a break-even budget to be considered successful.
Fiscal year 2001 was a particularly bad year for HFFA's finances: Its revenue was $172,198 and expenses were more than $4 million.
In fact, the fitness center largely relied on the town's general funds for operational expenses in its first few years because of financial troubles, said Jetton.
But in recent years, HFFA has become largely self-sustained. Their best year was fiscal year 2006, in which they had about $104,000 in revenue over expenditures.
Town manager Greg Ferguson estimated HFFA now pays 90 percent of its costs. Revenue from the county-wide hotel, motel and prepared food tax pays for the other 10 percent, he said.
"It's been extremely successful with covering its expenses," said Ferguson. "I'm pleased with the progress it's made."
But Caulfield said she would like to see HSW start paying back the $5 million that the town loaned to build the facility a decade ago.
The town has never explicitly said HSW had to pay back the $5 million, said Ferguson.
Jetton also said the management company has never been charged that loan amount. If they had been charged, she said, HSW would have probably never accepted the contract.
Ferguson told commissioners last week that it would probably take staff several months to complete a document request for qualifications, adding that it would be impossible to have it completed by the time HSW's contract expires at the end of June.
Thus, the commissioners are expected to decide on a contract extension with HSW at their retreat later this month.
Many commissioners stressed last week their decision to open bidding on managing Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics did not reflect their opinion of HSW.
"It's by no means a lack of confidence in HSW," said Commissioner Ron Julian. "Even though I truly believe HSW is truly the best option, I would be remiss if I didn't make sure that they were the best."
Jetton said she felt confident that HSW will get its contract renewed with the town and suggested the company has done more for the community than just manage the fitness facility.
She cited the facility's annual road races, adult triathlon series, and programs on weight management with Presbyterian Hospital as examples of the company's commitment to the community.
"It's a very unique project in terms of the tentacles that it has that reach into the community. It's founded on the basis of relationships that team members have developed with the community," she said.