WATERVILLE — Champions Fitness Center at Elm Plaza was just weeks away from shutting its doors for good.

Employees who had worked there 20 or more years were looking for new jobs, and longtime club members were sad that their home away from home would be no more.

“We all thought we were going down,” Champions business manager Renee Raymond said Monday.

It was the first of September. Charlie Giguere, who had owned the business more than 30 years, had to make a decision as his lease was nearing its renewal date.

The 50,000-square-foot building, owned by the Rosenthal family, which also owns the adjacent Elm Plaza, needed a lot of costly repairs and improvements.

As much as Giguere did not want to shut down the business and put about 30 people out of work, he saw no alternative and told the Rosenthals he was going to close.

“It just didn’t make sense for me to do capital repairs to the building,” Giguere said.

A win-win

What happened next not only saved the local business, which had been around for three decades, but also set the stage for major improvements to both the business and building.

Building owners Bob Rosenthal and his son, Andy, came up with a solution that was a win-win, according to Giguere.

“They said they want to keep the building operable and asked me to manage the property rather than be a tenant,” Giguere said. “They opened a new corporation and invested a significant amount of money into the building. We have a whole new facade outside the entrance — new metal flashing that replaced the shingles. We have new LED lights, all new light fixtures in the locker rooms and lobby, and the lobby and locker rooms have been painted. (The Rosenthals are) definitely serious about doing these upgrades to the building in conjunction with my managing the property. We are getting new equipment. We have all new computers and front desk software coming in.”

The new arrangement keeps Giguere managing the fitness club, which includes tennis and racquetball, a gym, child care and two large banquet halls. The business also maintains its working relationship with businesses such as Inland Hospital, which operates a satellite physical therapy program at Champions for clients who prefer not to do their rehabilitation in a hospital environment, Giguere said.

Bob Rosenthal said Monday night that the agreement worked out best for everyone involved.

“The impression that we’re getting is that the changes are being well-received, and we’re making as many changes as we can as quickly as we can,” Rosenthal said. “Charlie will be running the place with Andy (who manages Elm Plaza), and we’re expecting that we’ll have a long life.”

He said he is pleased Champions will remain in Waterville.

“It’s good for the community,” he said.

The 4,000-square-foot Champions Nightclub on the second floor of the building which was open on Wednesday and Thursday nights was closed as part of the new arrangement. Giguere will move some events formerly held at Champions to his downtown businesses, Silver Street Tavern and Spirits. Spirits is a nightclub in the basement of Silver Street.

Meanwhile, Giguere still gets to run a business he has enjoyed operating for many years without the stress of being responsible for the expensive repairs and improvements, he said.

“I’m very happy how things worked out because one, the business continues to operate,” he said, “two, my employees keep their jobs, and three, now we’re running a business with a commitment to capital improvements to the building.

“We agreed to agree on what was best for both parties, and that was to keep the business open while limiting my liability on capital expenditures because I was a tenant. It was a win-win situation.”

Raymond, his business manager, was thrilled with the outcome, which was a surprise to everyone, she said. Giguere announced recently to the staff that the business was going to remain open.

“I was so relieved,” Raymond said. “We all clapped. I got to keep my job.”

Lisa Lambert, Champions’ fitness director who has worked there 20 years, said she had submitted resumes to other businesses but did not want to leave Champions. When she learned she would be staying, she was elated.

“This is home,” she said. “This is definitely like home to me. My daughter grew up here. All our kids grew up here.”

Fifteen-year employee Jason Tardif, Champions’ tennis pro, also was relieved — and happy.

“It was sad to think that it was going to be closing,” he said. “I live close by. I have three boys who go to school here, and my wife is a school teacher.”

Jobs for instructors, personal trainers, receptionists, child care workers, maintenance workers, administration employees and others were salvaged.

SUPPORTING LOCAL BUSINESS

Mayor Karen Heck praised both Giguere and the Rosenthals for coming to an agreement that will keep Champions open calling it a “win-win for the local economy.”

“I’m delighted that the Rosenthals have stepped in to save Champions from closing,” Heck said Monday. “Charlie (Giguere) has worked hard to build his business, and the Rosenthals received a very generous TIF from the city for the plaza. I’m very happy to see that they are using some of that money to reinvest in a local business.”

Heck was referring to a tax increment financing district the city approved in 1996 and amended in 1999 to provide a credit enhancement agreement for Elm Plaza to facilitate commercial expansion in the upper Main Street area.

On Monday, Giguere emphasized the importance of supporting local business, particularly those that are not part of a franchise or chain.

Having grown up in a family that owned small independent local grocery stores and being a local business owner himself, Giguere has strong views about keeping local dollars local.

Large chain grocery stores, he said, send their profits out of the community, whereas locally owned stores do not. The same goes for restaurants and fitness clubs, he said, while acknowledging that chains do provide some employment.

“People should really think about choosing local businesses that invest in the local economy as opposed to chains, whose money leaves town on the pony express,” Giguere said.

He added that local businesses must provide value and local service to warrant that choosing.

In addition to owning Champions for 30 years, Giguere bought the building downtown that houses Silver Street Tavern, as well as an adjacent building just to its south on Main Street. Giguere created apartments in the Main Street building and currently is developing offices and apartments on the second and third floors of the Silver Street building.

Silver Street Tavern employs longtime downtown kitchen workers, including Joe Plumstead, executive chef, who worked at The Last Unicorn next door and owned that business for 12 years. Mike Williams, sous chef at Silver Street, also worked at The Last Unicorn more than 15 years, and employee Joe Stone formerly owned Silver Street Tavern.

While the nightclub at Champions has closed, the employees who worked there will work at Spirits and Silver Street Tavern downtown, Giguere said. A popular feature of the Champions nightclub was Retro Friday Nights, featuring music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Now, Retro Friday will be offered at Spirits, with high definition video broadcasting the party in the basement at Spirits to upstairs patrons at the tavern, according to Giguere.

Four deejays who worked at Champions will continue to rotate working weekends at Spirits, which is open Friday and Saturday nights during the fall and winter seasons, as well as Wednesday nights in the summer. Silver Street and Spirits employ about 30 part- and full-time people.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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