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Monday, November 19 Local

Nonprofit Stamford clubs team up to kill proposed Life Time Fitness center

STAMFORD — An unlikely adversary has emerged in the fight against a new upscale health club in a Turn of River office park — long-standing nonprofit clubs that fear competition could put them out of business.

The Italian Center and the Jewish Community Center, both fewer than three miles away from a proposed Life Time Fitness center off Turn of River Road, have overtly — and covertly — lobbied the zoning board to shoot the gym down at public hearings this spring.

Life Time, which could offer outdoor pools, beauty salons, a spa and bar rooms, will siphon off memberships that the clubs rely on to fund good community works, they argue. In a since-pulled site plan application, Life Time estimated it could bring in 5,000 memberships, potentially cannibalizing the nonprofits’ market share of area residents seeking pools or fitness centers.

“Life Time needs to play by the rules and not create their own rules,” said Mark Sherman, speaking on behalf of the JCC at the first of three zoning hearings.

“(The proposal) sends a message that if you don’t like Stamford’s code, do everything in your resources to change it,” he added.

JCC officials argue the club could chip away at their memberships enough to force them to close, while other current and former JCC board members address the board as nearby residents, condemning the proposal for everything from its possible impact on traffic to what they call Life Time’s questionable business practices.

For example, Risa Raich this week spoke to the board, telling the five-member panel that Life Time would exacerbate an already dangerous area on High Ridge Road.

“It has become increasingly difficult to navigate High Ridge Road,” said Raich, who is the JCC’s president. “It will only compound the traffic and pedestrian safety problem.”

Potential impacts

In interviews, an Italian Center official and board member said a Life Time in the High Ridge Office Park could force the center to shutter.

The nonprofit, still reeling from a devastating fire last year and the Great Recession, is down some 400 memberships since its 1,400-member high a decade ago. Another significant loss of memberships would mean trouble, they said.

“Families are really what sustains us,” said Executive Director Paul Hickey. “It would damage us severely, so we would have to take a serious look at how we do business.”

“We lose 200 members, that’s a half million dollars. I can’t make that up,” he added.

Italian Center Board Member Jeff Salvatore said what the city might gain in a Life Time — more tax revenue — it could lose in his group’s charity.

“Our mission statement is giving back to the community,” he said.

The center underwrites a handful of events for other nonprofits, hosts free tennis lessons for city children, awards scholarships to area high school students and serves free lunch to hundreds of Stamford’s senior citizens each month, he said.

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“It’s what we do,” Salvatore said. “We have to generate money, but we have to give back.”

But the nonprofits’ contentions likely won’t affect the zoning board’s decision.

The board is tasked with assessing land use — traffic, noise and neighborhood compatibility— not business interests, for profit or not.

And the board isn’t technically yet assessing the Life Time project alone, it is weighing a zoning code text change that would allow stand alone gyms in all six city office parks. If the change goes through, then zoning and planning would judge the project itself.

Attorney William Hennessey, advocating for the New-York-based office park owner, George Comfort & Sons, said the nonprofits’ arguments are “shortsighted” and “not germane to land use and zoning.”

“And the market is big enough — this is a city of 130,000 people,” he said. “They would coexist just fine in the community, just like the Jewish Community Center and the Italian Center have existed.”

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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