Hoping for a miracle - Laconia Athletic and Swim Club shuts doors, seeks investors to rescue club from creditors

LACONIA — Laconia Athletic and Swim Club, a business many have come to love and depend on for their health and recreation, closed Thanksgiving afternoon under a mountain of debt. Yet the owner clings to a glimmer of hope that a local investor, or investors, will step forward to help rescue the club.
Tom Oakley told The Daily Sun in an emotional interview he had no choice but to shut the doors. He is unable to restructure his mortgage and meet payroll obligations beyond Thursday.
"Our hearts are breaking," said Oakley, 59, of Meredith. "My wife and I (feel bad), because we are closing the doors on a thousand-plus members, 63-plus employees. We have the local swim team — about 60 separate families — and 50-plus families in the swim program, and the seniors who need the facility for their overall health. They trusted us, and to have this turn on us so fast is just breaking our hearts."
Oakley has been desperately working on a rescue plan with Mike Benton, owner and CEO of the Executive Health and Sports Center in Manchester, the Sportsplex in Bedford, and the president and CEO of the Genavix Wellness Network. But any deal to save the club depends on finding a new partner or partners with a lot of cash.
"I think the best thing that could happen is somehow we put together some kind of recovery," said Benton, "lending our name and support. It requires existing creditors to restructure."
The club, which Oakley has owned for the past 24 years, was on a roll until recently, when a confluence of unexpected events threw him for a loop — loss of federal funding for energy-saving projects, bankruptcy of the primary mortgage holder, employee challenges and the loss of members over operating decisions like ending in-the-building child care.
Oakley had experienced 69 percent revenue growth from 2011 to 2013, taking gross revenue from $1,058,034 to $1,791,978.
"Over the last three years, we have invested over $1 million into the facility," said Oakley, "consisting of energy-efficient HVAC systems, new training studios, exercise equipment and building improvements. Unfortunately, due to a federal regulation, a significant part of our energy improvement project was denied after we had committed to the project, which forced us to take on another loan to address the gap in the project."
To compound the problem, the first lien holder for the club went bankrupt, making it difficult to refinance, he said.
"For 18 months, our note was 'owned' by the FDIC," said Oakley, "which prevented us from having access to any reasonable lending or refinancing opportunities. This left us with unfavorable lenders to choose from during this challenging time."
Oakley said he made additional decisions that, in retrospect, led to losses in membership and revenue.
"We are now slowly recovering after rectifying the situation a few months ago," he said. "Couple that with a few employee challenges."
"We regret this sudden notice," he said, "but we were just notified by our lender of their decision. We simply cannot continue to operate under these conditions."
Both Oakley and Benton are hoping someone in the community will have the resources to help. Anyone wishing to contact Oakley may do so at toakley @lascfit.com. He said he needs a partner who can help restructure the debt and infuse some cash into the business. Benton is giving his support and name value, saying that his experience with the Executive should be an asset.
Henry Lipman, Ward 3 city councilor and longtime member of the club, views the club as one well worth saving.
"It continues to be a community asset," he said, "and as a business they've done a lot of good work to be a community resource. They've supported the Children's Auction. I'm hoping they'll be able to work something out. They're good people."
Lipman noted that the Oakleys were involved in many community fundraisers, such as Pumpkinfest, the Children's Auction, the Santa Fund and area triathlons, and that there are a lot of people in the area who depend on them for their health.
Oakley said he hopes anyone with a membership will give them time to figure out the situation before asking for refunds, as he hopes to reopen again very soon.
"We once again are optimistic that a solution can be accomplished, but not without others," he said.

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Millstone park drainage project gets TIF money

LACONIA — The Laconia City Council voted 4-2 Monday night to approve the transfer of  $29,590  from two different TIF accounts to pay for the Millstone Park drainage and sidewalk project, which saw a “pocket park” created at the end of Pleasant Street near the McIntyre Block.
The approved transfers included $19,515.17 from the funds left over in TIF Gateway Improvement Project, which was undertaken in coordination with the reconstruction of the Main Street Bridge, and $10,074.83 from the $53,000 set aside in a TIF contingency and bond fee account.
Voting against the transfers were Ward 4 Councilor Brenda Baer and Ward 5 Councilor Bob Hamel.– Gail Ober

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County commissioners hold the line on taxes

LACONIA — Belknap County commissioners are holding the line on taxes.
Chairman David DeVoy said that although the total spending proposal for 2016 is up more than 31 percent, the amount to be raised by taxes is the same as this year, $13,387,714.
The proposed 2016 budget of $35,235,571 includes $8,113,359 for a new county jail, to be financed by a borrowing, as well as $350,000 in anticipated grants for the Corrections and Sheriff's departments.
This year's budget was $26,823,695. The 2016 proposal, minus the county jail bond, is $27,122,212.
DeVoy said the commissioners will present their budget proposal to the Belknap County Convention on Dec. 7. At that meeting, the commissioners will also discuss their plans for financing the $8 million bond for the new community corrections facility.
DeVoy said the county must respect Laconia's property tax cap, which will likely prohibit any increase in the amount to be raised by taxes.
Commissioners are looking to structure the bond issue with an eye to keeping payments lower, especially during the early years while the county is still paying off $1.4 million in other debts.
Devoy favors a bond anticipation note which would allow the county to borrow only the amount it needs, when it needs it, not the entire $8 million. He hopes to present that plan to the convention at the Dec. 7 meeting.
After approving the bond issue on Nov. 2, the county convention passed a nonbinding resolution to use the county's unreserved fund balance to pay off the county's current $1.4 million debt obligation over the next three years, saving $1 million in interest charges. The resolution, proposed by Rep. Brian Gallagher (R-Sanbornton) and passed by a 12-3 vote, recommends a 20-year bond issue with level payments of $530,000 per year over the life of the bond.
Convention Chairman Frank Tilton (R-Laconia) opposed the nonbinding recommendation, saying he favors a 25-year bond spreading the cost of the new jail over a longer period so taxpayers who would benefit from the new facility would be paying a larger share.
Commissioner Richard Burchell (R-Gilmanton) recently reminded the commission of the convention's overwhelming vote in favor of Gallagher's recommendation.

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Laconia trash container set on fire

LACONIA – Fire Chief Ken Erickson said a 15-yard trash container fire on 10 Lindsay Court Tuesday at 5 p.m. was deliberately set. Police and fire officials are seeking the public's help in learning what happened.
He said the fire burned for about 20 minutes before being extinguished by Laconia Fire crews.
Erickson said this is the second fire of unknown origin in the immediate neighborhood.
On Nov. 10, a fire in the rear of a three-story apartment building was extinguished by firefighters who had to evacuate the building at 3 a.m.
Erickson said he had no reason to think the two fires are related but noted they occurred within 50 yards of each other.

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