For the past 37 years, the Columbia Association has dominated the planned community's sport and fitness industry with little competition.
But now it is facing a significant rival in the mega Life Time Fitness and is responding by pouring $823,500 into its sport facilities, which are the cornerstone - and most profitable - of the homeowners association's amenities.
Critics are questioning whether the nonprofit organization should enter the competitive business arena in an attempt to fend off Life Time Fitness, which is to move into Columbia's Gateway Commerce Center next year or in early 2006.
"The [association] board shouldn't be quick to throw money at perpetuating a monopoly that doesn't need to exist," said Alex Hekimian, president of the watchdog group Alliance for a Better Columbia.
The Supreme Sports Club in Owen Brown - the association's largest gym, which is closest to the proposed Life Time site - is scheduled to undergo changes, including being converted to a 24-hour operation by Sept. 7.
The Columbia Association is also dedicating $221,500 for capital improvements at the 110,000-square-foot club, including painting the building's exterior, adding art in the foyer, renovating the exterior signs, replacing furniture and adding a plasma television to the lobby lounge.
To change the club's hours, the association board has approved adding $54,000 to the current operating budget and $80,000 to the conditional 2006 operating budget.
The sports club, along with the Columbia Athletic Club, Columbia Gym and Columbia Swim Center, will also undergo housekeeping improvements, costing $148,000 in the current operating budget and $220,000 in the 2006 conditional operating budget.
The current fiscal year's operating expenses would come from the association's projected surplus of $4.3 million for the fiscal year.
Nearby the Supreme Sports Club, the Hopewell outdoor pool is to be turned in to a major family aquatic center. The board agreed to move $100,000 in planning funds from the 2009 budget to the current budget, allowing the association to prepare to convert the pool with possible amenities such as a spray pad, covered pavilion with snack bar, half-court basketball court, playground and new bath house.
The pool renovations could begin as early as next year, said Robert D. Bellamy, the association's operations manager for the sport and fitness facilities divisions.
The Supreme Sports Club and the Hopewell pool are the two main facilities poised to compete with Life Time, which has a contract to open a gym off Robert Fulton Drive. The company typically operates 150,000- square-foot, 24-hour facilities that include two full-size gyms, two indoor pools, racquetball and squash courts, rock-climbing walls, a spa, outdoor pools and tennis or volleyball courts.
"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't think [Life Time] were not going to have an effect on us," board member Tom O'Connor of Dorsey's Search said of the renovations.
Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown said that when a business such as Life Time opens in Columbia, it gives the association a chance to re-examine its programs and services, which include 23 outdoor pools, three gyms and two golf courses.
"Sometimes people tend to feel that [with] the word 'nonprofit,' somehow you shouldn't look at doing the best that you can," Brown said. "We're always looking at how we can enhance ourselves and be attractive to our members and users."
Its gyms are among the most profitable of the association's recreational facilities - contributing from $1.2 million to $2.7 million after expenses to the 2004 fiscal year budget.
"We have an investment in those facilities," O'Connor said. "And they do have an effect on our bottom line. They do help to keep the lien payments down."
While Barbara Russell, the board's vice chairwoman, sees the need to try to keep customers, she said the association is going about it the wrong way with the Hopewell pool. Consumers are going to buy memberships to Columbia Association facilities for the entire package - memberships that include all outdoor pools, or memberships that grant access to almost all of the sport facilities - not just for one specialty pool, she said.
"It's crazy. I don't think it makes any sense," she said of the plans to renovate Hopewell. "I don't think it's well thought out."
Instead of focusing on improving one pool, Ruth Cargo of Oakland Mills said the association should spend money on refurbishing older pools throughout Columbia and making them free for children. She said the association's neighborhood pools act as community gathering spots, and Life Time cannot match that atmosphere.
"CA shouldn't be in the business of competing," Cargo said. "It should be in the business of meeting the needs of as many Columbians as we can."
Board member Phil Marcus of Kings Contrivance said he does not have a problem with the Columbia Association competing with the future gym, as long as it does not come at the cost of association lien payers who pay an annual charge imposed on property owners.
"I don't know how we can get out of the game," Marcus said. "We can surrender, I guess. I'm not even sure what that means, as a matter of fact - shut down sport and fitness? I think there'd be a lot of people upset about that."
Hekimian said he is not advocating closing the gyms, but he said that if a private business can provide a service that's comparable to Columbia Association services, "let them provide it, so be it."
"What government is supposed to do is fill in the gaps that the private sector can't or won't provide, within bounds, of course," he said, adding that the association is a "quasi-government" as it collects a mandatory fee from all property owners.
However, board Chairman Joshua Feldmark said that without the renovations to the sport facilities, the association would "be in danger."
"But I don't think that with just the improvements we're out of the woods," he said. "I don't think we can say, 'Let's just dump all this money into them.' There's a lot of other things we need to talk about ... other quality service issues, our rate structures."