Total Fitness will remain open, county officials say


Habersham Medical Center had planned to permanently close the doors to its community fitness center on Wednesday, but that won’t happen. Instead, hospital administrators have agreed to continue operating Total Fitness until March 3 to ensure a smooth transition to the county.

Habersham County will assume operations on March 6.

The county’s decision to take over Total Fitness came as a surprise to many. Monday night, commissioners voted to table the matter until their March meeting.

Joint press release

On Tuesday afternoon, commission chair Ty Akins announced in a joint press release with county manager Alicia Vaughn that the county will create a full-time position for someone to oversee Total Fitness. They touted the benefits of keeping the facility open.

“Many of those who use Total Fitness do so in combination with other opportunities in the aquatic center building, including walking laps and swimming – activities that are not readily available outdoors during inclement weather or cold temperatures,” the release states.

Habersham Medical Center opened Total Fitness in 1996. It was housed at Piedmont University (née Piedmont College) before moving into the Habersham County Ruby Fulbright Aquatic Center near Clarkesville. Earlier this month, the hospital decided to close Total Fitness to save money. It’s now donating its gym equipment to the county.

Commissioners voted unanimously to accept the donation during their meeting on February 20.

The news that the county is moving forward with plans to take over Total Fitness is welcome news to its approximately 550 members. Many of those members have spent the past several weeks calling and writing letters to hospital and county officials urging them to keep the facility open.

It ‘gets them out of bed’

It’s an emotional topic for many, who rely on the Total Fitness program for wellness, staying fit, and social connections. Several of them addressed commissioners before a standing-room-only crowd at the courthouse Monday night.

Total Fitness member Peggy Berry says the fitness and wellness center is what gets some seniors in Habersham County ‘out of bed.’ (Jerry Neace/Now Habersham)

Peggy Berry said the activities at Total Fitness and the recreation department are what get some seniors out of the bed in the morning.

“The members of Total Fitness are family. They know each other. They know when somebody hasn’t been around for a while,” Berry told commissioners.

Fighting back tears, Berry added, “In short, they care about each other.”

Carol Perkins said she and her husband have led very active lives and started going to Total Fitness in 2006 when it was still at Piedmont College. It has been an integral part of their lives ever since.

“Total Fitness and the Rec. Dept. working together provides the only place around here where we can walk and run, indoors or outdoors, safely. The Aquatic Center provides a place where people of all ages come together to exercise and have healthy fun,” said Perkins.

In their press release, Akins and Vaughn said they heard similar concerns from numerous county residents.

Carol Perkins addresses expressed her strong support for keeping Total Fitness open during the Feb. 20, 2023, Habersham County Commission meeting. (Jerry Neace/Now Habersham)

Ironically, it was Akins who made the motion Monday night to table the matter until March so that details and questions about how the county might manage Total Fitness could be worked out. Commissioner Dustin Mealor seconded the motion.

The motion carried 4-1, with county commissioner Bruce Palmer casting the dissenting vote.

Habersham County Parks and Recreation Director Brooke Whitmire, for whom commissioners approved several new positions last year, said she did not have the staff to run the fitness center.

Position will be ‘advertised but not filled’

Asked by Now Habersham who voted to create the new position and when, Palmer clarified that the job “will be advertised but not filled” until the commission votes to approve creating and filling the position at their March meeting.

“That way, we can move on keeping the fitness center open without a lapse in service if approved by the commissioners,” Palmer says. He adds, “This position has been discussed in great detail. The base salary for this position is only around $18 per hour.”

“Adding expenses is never something we as commissioners take lightly,” says Akins. “But when faced with eliminating services that complement and enhance the fitness offerings available to our residents at a facility designed to promote their wellbeing, we feel we have an obligation to keep these opportunities available.”

It was standing room only at the Habersham County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. People packed into the hearing room and hallways to protest the hospital’s decision to close Total Fitness. The day after the meeting, county commissioners heeded their call to keep the fitness center open. (Jerry Neace/Now Habersham)

Vaughn says the county is reaching out to key members of Total Fitness who have spoken publicly about the transition.

“We hope to meet with them soon to get their feedback about how to structure membership fees and other aspects of operations moving forward,” Vaughn said on Tuesday. “They are obviously passionate, and we want to engage with them to harness that positivity to benefit all involved.”

She says keeping the fitness offerings available through the Habersham County Parks and Recreation Department is something the county can do without a lot of added financial impact.

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