By Randy Arrington
LURAY, Nov. 10 — Another ripple effect of an Oct. 13 fire in the East End Shopping Center is echoing throughout the community, as many speak out about the recent decision by Valley Health to close its fitness center in Luray.
“Since opening in 2007, Valley Health Wellness & Fitness | Luray has been privileged to help our members pursue their fitness and wellness goals,” reads a Facebook post by Valley Health on Friday, Nov. 4. “Unfortunately, memberships at the center have never returned to pre-pandemic levels, and now the center has been closed due to the fire in the adjacent space. As a result, the difficult decision has been made to close the center permanently.”
About 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 13 an emergency call was sent out for a structure fire at Dollar Tree, an anchor retail chain store in the shopping center. Fire crews found an active blaze in the rear of the structure, with heavy smoke pushing through the shared attic space of PMH Fitness Center and Boost Mobile, according to a report from the Luray Fire Department. Firefighters quickly gained control of the blaze, preventing the fire from spreading beyond the rear storage area of the Dollar Tree. However, firefighters were on scene for approximately five-and-a-half hours for smoke and heat ejection from the neighboring businesses.
“Due to a fire that happened next door, our facility took on a lot of smoke and because of the smoke filling the building we are currently working on getting that taken care of so that we can have a safe exercise environment for all members and visitors and for that reason we will unfortunately remain closed until further notice,” reads a notice still posted on the door of the fitness center.
However, the overall decision by Valley Health to shutter the facility was based primarily on financial concerns.
“The Luray fitness center has operated at a loss since its opening and has been supported by Valley Health and Page Memorial Hospital as a service to the community,” said Jacob Meza, Valley Health VP of Operations for Ambulatory, Post-Acute, and Community Services. “Current post-COVID financial challenges demand that we focus our resources on ensuring that essential health care services are available locally.”
While the decision had been building for some time, Meza confirmed that the fire last month sealed the deal.
“Last month a fire in the store adjacent to Valley Health’s fitness center in Luray made the building temporarily unsuitable for occupancy. This turn of events accelerated a difficult decision. Carefully weighing a variety of factors, Valley Health has decided to not reopen the center,” Meza said. “We regret the short notice and the disruption this has caused the center’s loyal members. Valley Health remains committed to the community’s health, and is evaluating possibilities for others to operate the center going forward.”
Dozens of negative comments were posted on the Facebook message from members and local residents, who noted the importance of the facility from those who work out regularly to those who may be in rehab following a medical procedure or recovery from an accident.
Even county leaders are weighing in on the issue as District 2 supervisor Allen Louderback stated at the board of supervisor’s meeting Monday night that he wanted a Valley Health representative to appear before the board and explain taking away this valuable community service while also receiving a recent $1 million grant to address “rural health challenges.”
The issue arose at Monday’s meeting as supervisors were discussing the potential investment of between $4 million to $8 million (or more) to build a recreation and community center on county-owned land adjacent to the Page County Technical Center.
Page County Recreation Coordinator Andrew Good has been working on a plan to build facilities that will accommodate the county’s current basketball and soccer programs without having to depend on the use of other facilities owned by Page County Public Schools, Town of Luray and other entities. However, during Monday night’s presentation the message from supervisors was “think bigger.”
District 1 supervisor Keith Guzy noted that the project’s scope could be increased if it included revenue-generating uses as well, such as batting cages and other indoor facilities that could be rented out to travel teams and coaches offering personal instruction. Guzy’s idea also extended to purchasing Valley Health’s equipment at the fitness center and offering that service to residents in light of the void the Luray facility’s closure has left. Louderback also mentioned the potential addition of an indoor swimming pool.
Currently, the project is simply in the planning stages and could take some time to reach completion. No immediate replacement for Valley Health’s fitness center in Luray is on the horizon. County Administrator Amity Moler said a community recreation center has been talked about by county officials for some time, and it could be accomplished now due to reserves (or savings) built up in the county’s general fund. With an initial quote of about $4 million, Moler said the county could take about half of that cost from reserves and finance the remainder.
While supervisors were overwhelmingly in support of the project, they asked Good to go back and revamp his plans and do more research to incorporate ideas and uses that would generate revenue to help pay for the continued use and maintenance of the community facility.
Among the potential uses being considered are indoor courts for basketball, pickelball, tennis and soccer, as well as spaces dedicated to batting cages and pitching instruction. Outdoor fields for soccer are also part of the plan, and potentially an indoor swimming pool. The building would include a conference room space for community meetings and classes as well.
Supervisors intend to continue discussing plans and potentially move forward in 2023.
The Oct. 13 fire at Dollar Tree has been ruled arson, and a Page County juvenile has been charged. The blaze was estimated to have caused more than $1 million in damages, including more than $315,000 in merchandise at Dollar Tree alone. Smoke caused damage at the fitness center and Uncle D’s Pool and Spas.
Former members of the Valley Health Wellness and Fitness Center in Luray are encouraged to check their Facebook page for further notices, or call (540) 743-8110 for more information.