Opinion Columns & Blogs

The Macon Health Club: A community asset no one can now afford

Andrew Foster uses weight training machines at the Medical Center's health club downtown.
Andrew Foster uses weight training machines at the Medical Center's health club downtown. THE TELEGRAPH

I have never set foot in the Macon Health Club, yet it grieves me to hear of its closing. My reaction is partly based on a family tie: my husband’s great grandfather founded Macon’s first Young Man’s Christian Association in 1855, and his grandfather served on the board for many years after it was revived following the Civil War. In his youth, Lanier was one of the thousands of boys who spent hundreds of hours at the Cherry Street facilities under the tutelage of the legendary E.G. Searcy, playing ball, swimming, working out, running track; many are the nostalgic memories of those years.

The other, more significant reason for a non-member to grieve the club’s loss is an appreciation for the role that it played in Macon’s evolution as a good place to live. It had been a shock in 1968 when three young Vietnam vets, recently home after fighting for their country, were denied entrance to the “Y” — because they were black. Even worse, the institution broke its affiliation with both the national YMCA and the local United Way after those entities insisted that it welcome all comers regardless of race. How healing then, when local business leaders, who had begun adding African American employees to their staffs, made it clear to the independent Macon Health Club that the “whites only” era was over. The fact that the club then bred increasing comfort between black and white Maconites, whose opportunities for informal contact had previously been sparse, was even more positive.

A community asset

Old membership records of the organization now housed in Washington Library’s Middle Georgia Archives read like a who’s who of 20th century white Macon. Manager Bobby Gordon told Ed Grisamore in 1990 that “This place has meant so much to so many people over the years that, late at night when it’s all shut down, it seems like it’s almost still breathing.”

Downtown office workers playing racquetball and swimming on their lunch hour were a constant presence. Before his 1987 death at 100, Searcy told Harley Bowers that he’d taught over 30,000 boys from all parts of the city to swim in its pool. Clearly these programs constituted a valuable community asset. But even as the organization opened its doors to everyone, enabling people of both genders and any ethnicity to improve their physical and psychosocial selves in a historical setting, it was losing money.

A constant struggle

Board minutes from the 1980s reveal a constant struggle to stay afloat, with members (many of whom had been associated with the place since childhood) considering re-affiliating with the national “Y” among other options, amid not-infrequent calls on deep-pocketed donors for bail outs. Downtown firms provided memberships for their employees, and the facilities were well-used, but rarely did income match the expenses incurred.

The very ambiance that makes the structure so beloved is a major part of the problem: the 100-year-old building has all the maintenance issues that come with ancient plumbing and elaborate architectural features. Furthermore, the structure, built as a “Y” with multiple programs, is larger than optimal given present usage, and, being spread over several floors, it is less compact than a modern facility with the same square footage. Actually, once the old dormitory rooms were closed, several floors remained vacant. Making capital repairs, such as a badly needed new roof, were out of the question.

While there was no panacea for these circumstances, the Medical Center of Central Georgia, then pursuing an expanded role in health care after opening its Wellness Center on Northside Drive, came to be seen as offering the best path forward. In March of 1991, just as the power company threatened to turn off the electricity, the club’s substantially depreciated physical assets, along with its $123,732 debt, were turned over to the Macon-Bibb Hospital Authority (which owns the hospital). A report on its first six months’ management show that the club was still losing money, though hopes were directed toward the $2 million investment that the financially stable Medical Center was about to make.

After a grand re-opening in 1993, losses decreased, but the market could not support charges set according to the expenses of such a high-maintenance facility. The hospital has spent millions more since; an effort to utilize part of the extra space as a downtown eating club eventually closed with a million dollar loss.

New financial realities

Times continued to change, and not in ways beneficial to either the health club or the Medical Center. Beginning with the Balanced Budget Act of 1998, hospital budgets were increasingly squeezed by lowered reimbursement rates, even as downtown offices moved or shrank, and numerous competing facilities drew health club members away, most notably to Mercer University’s new center. Membership is now less than half what it was in 1991, and active users are even fewer.

In order to protect the financial integrity that allows it to maintain the state-of-the-art facilities and staffing required of a Level One Trauma Center and other life-saving services that protect the people of Central Georgia, the hospital conducted an institution-wide, months-long employee-directed study of how to cut costs in 2009. Every aspect of operations was scrutinized and numerous difficult decisions were made. It was painful.

Contrary to the community’s perception that such a mammoth operation must have plenty of cushion, an item as seemingly minor as drinking water at meetings presented a way to reduce expenses: substituting pitchers of tap water for individual plastic bottles represented a savings of $17,000 per year.

Naturally, the money-losing operation at the Macon Health Club also attracted attention at that time. Given how far maintaining an historic structure, albeit an important downtown amenity, falls from the hospital’s core mission, closure was considered, despite the club’s obvious civic value. Nevertheless, responding to the fervent desires of members and civic boosters, the Medical Center made another effort at viability, among other things discontinuing — for a savings of $40,000 per year — the club’s towel service.

More competition

Yet the trends have worsened. Even more health and fitness facilities have opened across the city, including one downtown in the Dannenburg Building on Third Street. At the same time the hospital took a hit with passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act: as a safety net serving large numbers of indigent patients, the Medical Center (now the Medical Center-Navicent Health), had relied on infusions of federal funds, disproportionate share monies, to alleviate the losses such services incur.

Because the ACA envisioned shrinking the numbers of those patients via state exchanges and the expansion of Medicaid, “dish” funds were cut. When the state of Georgia failed to expand Medicaid, the Medical Center, like many of the rural hospitals which have closed or face closure, was caught between a rock and a hard place: monies removed by the law have not been replaced by newly insured people able to pay their bills. Its size has allowed the Medical Center to get by so far, but its margins have disappeared. It can no longer afford to be the good citizen this community had come to rely upon; its resources must be plowed into being a good, financially viable hospital.

Naturally, club members are disappointed. Understandably, trust between the entities is at an all time low. Threats were made, in the face of which litigation was initiated in an effort to resolve disputed interpretations of contractual agreements.

Going home

It is a sad time. Pulling this article together connected me with numerous people who relished the health club’s time-honored setting and location. None were more wistful than former president, board member, and active participant Cecil Baldwin. At its closing MHC members were offered memberships in Navicent Health’s Wellness Center, and Baldwin and some others have taken advantage of those services. They do not fill the gap. It wasn’t just the exercise that kept him going to the health club for more than 50 years, Baldwin said, it was the “camaraderie. . . . It was home.”

Twenty-seven years earlier, when MHC’s instability had led the board to turn it over to the hospital, he had described his concern to Ed Grisamore in nearly identical terms: “Yes, (the health club) has facilities and equipment for exercising, but it’s much more than that. There is a cross-section of rich and poor, black and white, and yet there is a feeling of fellowship and harmony. . . . It’s been there for so many years that when I go in and see things going all the way back to my childhood, it’s a secure feeling. It’s a feeling of stability and continuity, sort of like going home.”

Clearly, the affection of the club’s members has not changed; unfortunately, neither has its financial viability.

Nancy Anderson, author of “Macon, A Pictorial History,” is a former Telegraph columnist and a former member, and chair, of the Medical Center of Central Georgia, now the Medical Center- Navicent Health.