Tri-City forms committee to bring back senior wellness program

REGION — Unable to halt the July 31 closure of two popular senior fitness centers, the Tri-City Healthcare District board said it would form a committee to try to revive the centers in a scaled-back form.

The board made the decision in front of a packed boardroom at the July 30 directors meeting, during which more than a dozen speakers implored the board to stave off the imminent closure of the Nifty After Fifty locations in Oceanside and Vista.

The board had voted in June to close the sites after they had been hemorrhaging money over the past year, despite hospital officials’ efforts to boost membership through two separate marketing campaigns.

“I think we owe it to the people to take a look at this, rather than a knee-jerk respond of ‘let’s close this because we are losing money,’” Board chairman Larry Schallock said. “If we can get a group together to come up with another plan, that would be ideal.”

The North County hospital announced on July 9 that it would close the Nifty After Fifty locations on July 31. Nifty After Fifty, a fitness center chain that specializes in senior wellness, has 39 locations in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Virginia.

The hospital district originally said it would offer seniors displaced by the closures six months free membership at the district’s Wellness Center in Carlsbad, and would offer discounted memberships after the six months.

It opened its locations in North County in early 2014, but hospital officials cited an inability to increase membership — despite what it called “extensive marketing efforts” — as the reason for the decision to shut down operations.

Hospital officials anticipated the program would pay for itself after early losses through three services: the fitness component, a physical therapy component, and other ancillary services, with the physical therapy expected to generate the bulk of the revenue.

The physical therapy business, however, never took off because many of the area doctors had contracts to refer patients to other local centers, district spokesman David Bennett said.

As a result, Bennett said, the district attempted to reach out to area doctors to refer seniors for the fitness component, but the campaign didn’t increase membership by much.

“Our membership revenue is less than $7,500 for both locations and we continue to lose at both locations in excess of $50,000 per month where the rent at both locations is $10,300 per month and the management fee is $10,000 per month, respectively,” Bennett said. “The decision was made that we couldn’t continue to operate the centers with these types of losses.”

Seniors who attended the board meeting, many of whom espoused the benefits of the facilities, were skeptical of the district’s marketing efforts. Several said their primary care doctors were unaware of the existence of the facilities.

“Closing these facilities does not demonstrate a commitment to your community,” said Kim Stone, a local resident who has spearheaded the effort to keep Nifty After Fifty open. “This action alienates a large population of the community you serve.”

Board member RoseMarie Reno joined the residents in protest of the decision, which she said was made hastily.

“We’ve got the Rady’s building that we purchased there sitting vacant for three years, which is money down the tube,” Reno said, referring to an office building the district purchased in 2012. “But we are talking about closing a facility that is providing a valuable service to the residents of our community.”

The group of residents asked if the district could take action to reverse or suspend the closure to give the district time to put together an alternative plan of operation, but the board said its hands were tied because the agenda item was not an action item.

Additionally, district CEO Tim Moran said it would be unfeasible to stop the closure on the eve of the shutdown as both locations had already laid off staff and signage and fitness equipment were scheduled to be removed the next day.

Schallock said the group would work swiftly to bring about a resolution.

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