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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