Kevin Hunt: Is Berlin Turnpike Fitness Club Closing? Member Wants Billing Stopped




So maybe you're staying home for the holidays. Great. That leaves plenty of time to prepare for the guilt trip you're going on next month after a December of overeating, drinking and merriment.

Fitness clubs love it when people carry holiday plumpness and big-time remorse into the New Year. New members sign up for a short trial membership or, feeling ambitious, maybe a one-year contract. When the resolve fades, quickly, they leave. When enough newbie members bail out, the clubs sometimes fold so quickly that hardcore members lose both their local gym and their investment in it.

Nandi Colon of Wethersfield contacted The Bottom Line in late November after she says workers at the nearby Retro Fitness on the Berlin Turnpike told her the club would close within days.

"I was told by a manager," she says, "that it was only by chance that he and the other staff found out about the closing [after] a client inquired as to why the normal monthly rate for the use of the gym was not deducted from her account for the current month."

The same thing happened, says Colon, with the previous fitness-club tenant at the site, Friendly Fitness. Colon says, because of a foot injury, she already had canceled personal training sessions costing $160 a month. For now, she was paying $10.64 a month ($9.99 plus tax) automatically deducted from her debit-card account.

But Colon says her bank would not stop the monthly payments because they were part of her contract with the club.

"They wouldn't do it until the doors were actually closed," she says.

So is Retro Fitness closing or not? A Facebook posting on Nov. 29 said no: " We are open and will not be closing. No matter what you've heard. Come to Retro."

The club's general manager, Chris Taylor, said earlier this month there are no plans to close.

"No, we're open," he says. "Everything is good to go."

Except for one thing: Retro Fitness was not licensed with the state of Connecticut. Records show it was licensed for only one month, September, when it opened in 2010. Any fitness club that requires fees paid 30 days in advance or contracts of at least 30 days must be licensed by the Department of Consumer Protection.

"What does that mean?" says Taylor. "I'm not the corporation, so I'm not really sure."

The state DCP, when told by TBL about the club's unlicensed status, contacted the Retro Fitness corporate office in Colts Neck, N.J., which says it has owned and operated the Wethersfield business since the franchisee left shortly after opening the club. The license is now pending state approval.

"We thought we were in compliance," says Robert Sprechman, the company's chief financial officer. "We had no idea we hadn't filed something with the state. That's not what we do. . . . The franchisee had a personal issue and basically handed us the keys and walked away."

Sprechman says Retro Fitness, which has 90 locations in 10 states, has no plans to close the Wethersfield club but acknowledges it has struggled.

"It's a challenging area for us," he says. "I wish it wasn't. We like to succeed. If for some reason we had to close the club and walk away, we would reimburse every single human being if we owed them money. We're not going to tarnish our reputation by closing our doors in the middle of the night and screwing people. We just don't do that."

Always make sure the club you join is licensed (visit http://www.elicense.ct.gov) because the licensing fees feed a Guaranty Fund that offers refunds to customers when a fitness club closes unexpectedly.

Colon says she canceled both her membership and her husband's earlier this month, then demanded proof.

"I wanted a [computer] print screen that showed I was here and put a stop to it," she says. "I told them it better not show up on my January statement."

When a licensed club closes without warning, get a DCP complaint form by calling 860-713-6300 or, toll-free, 800-842-2649. (Or download one here.) You must apply within six months of the closing. A hearing after the club has been closed within those six months determines the prorated refunds to club members who have filed a complaint.

If you decide to take your guilt and thickened waist to a fitness club in January, know your rights before joining:

>> You have three days to cancel after signing a contract.

>> Any contract must include a notice of your right to cancel if the club moves or closes.

>> A club cannot sell a membership contract that lasts more than two years. Lifetime memberships are against the law.

>> If you're injured or otherwise disabled, you're entitled to a prorated refund with appropriate medical documentation.

>> If a club moves, you get a refund.

>> If a club closes without warning, get some money back by filing a complaint with the state Department of Consumer Protection.

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