by Kate Shunney
Working out in the Valley Health fitness center was about more than physical wellness, local residents told the Morgan County commissioners last Wednesday. The sudden closure of the Berkeley Springs center by Valley Health, effective February 1, has left more than 200 members without the many benefits of their regular workouts.
In a presentation led by Judith Shumate, disappointed fitness center users told county officials they were blindsided by the closure of the fitness center with little notice and confused by the reasoning behind the sudden move.
Valley Health said they closed four of their six fitness centers across the regional health system because of financial strains, and lower membership levels due to the pandemic.
Shumate and several other residents said that didn’t make sense, and they had seen no effort by Valley Health to attract new members or even to raise membership fees to keep the fitness center viable.
In collecting signatures for a petition aimed at trying to convince Valley Health to reopen the center, Shumate said members were surprised to find that half of the people they talked to “didn’t know there was a fitness center there.”
Fitness services at the Valley Road facility often flowed from the physical therapy portion of the business. Many members said they joined the fitness center after getting physical therapy or surgery-related services, and wanting to continue on their wellness journey.
All speakers praised the classes and professionalism of the fitness center staff, saying they were certified and very effective fitness leaders.
Shumate asked the County Commission to speak to Valley Health to advocate for the fitness center to stay open, and potentially offer public funding to make that possible.
Several speakers said they would be more than willing to pay more for the fitness center services if it meant they could continue their exercise programs in that setting.
In asking county officials for their help, Shumate and others spoke forcefully about the importance of their exercise programs not just for maintaining their physical health, but for their mental health, and supportive connections among members.
“It’s got me through a lot, from the death of my father to the death of a grandson,” Shumate told the commissioners.
Susan Webster told county officials that the county’s older residents need facilities like the fitness center to stay open, and need the support of commissioners in finding a way to make that happen.
“Let me tell you, endorphins are real,” she said. Webster said exercise and fellowship among members have been positive forces in many people’s lives.
“We need this. We need the county help ensure the physical and mental health of its citizens,” said another speaker.
Kent Kesecker told commissioners the four centers that closed were all run by outside entities, not Valley Health itself.
Commission President Sean Forney said he and the two other commissioners had heard from many fitness center supporters and had made an effort to connect with Valley Health.
“We all three reached out to Valley Health,” Forney said. “They were not interested in any possible solutions.”
“They’ve made their decision,” said Commissioner Joel Tuttle.
Forney said he’s always dreamed of having a recreation center in Morgan County, which is one long-term project that needs attention.
Shumate said Valley Health will apparently sell off their fitness center equipment, and she asked the county to consider buying it to place in another public location.
Morgan Arts Council director Darren O’Neill offered use of the Ice House for movement classes.
Commissioner Tuttle said Rankin’s physical therapy and gym has space, and suggested a partnership might be put in place to carry the fitness center members into that facility.
“We’d be willing to look at support for that kind of proposal,” he said.
Commissioners committed to writing a letter to Valley Health asking for an immediate solution to the loss of pre-surgery fitness programming in Berkeley Springs and proposing some kind of partnership with the county.
Addressing Shumate and other fitness center supporters, Forney said the county would assist in planning for a solution.
“If you would be willing to put a work group together, the county could have a seat at that table,” he said.
“I wouldn’t let Valley Health off the hook just yet,” Kent Kesecker suggested.
“We’re willing to have more conversations,” Forney said.