Fort Bragg’s Redwood Health Club Closes

The Redwood Health Club, an icon of the greater Mendocino/Fort Bragg area, closed its doors for the last time on Saturday, June 30.

Owner Don Pollard had kept the place going through thick and thin for over 30 years. He blamed the club's demise on two things: the Starr Center, and the Bank. When the new C.V. Starr center opened, along with another competing exercise/health club south of town, the RHC lost some 60% of its regular members. And the Savings Bank of Mendocino recently foreclosed on him.

The Redwood Health Club was originally started in the 1970s by Dr. Michael Goldman, a local dentist who eventually opened branches in both Ukiah and Paradise, California. Mr. Pollard, a local contractor, bought the place around 1980, and after more than ten years had added a full-size swimming pool, a hot jacuzzi pool, dry and steam saunas, a large state-of-the-art free weight room, exercise machine rooms, racquetball courts, tennis courts, class and meeting rooms, and more. The place was a mecca for guys to “turn that kegger back into a six pack” and for gals to get into shape. Folks went there to recover after surgery or illness, to participate in tournaments, classes and workouts. For some it was simply a place to get cleaned up, warmed to the bone, and just swim a few laps.

When the City of Fort Bragg expressed a desire to replace the small and inadequate pool at their antiquated City Hall Recreation Center, Pollard, with his expertise as a contractor, offered to build it for them with the million dollars given by Harry and Sigrid Spath for the purposes of building new city pool. Instead, community groups got excited, and raised the cash to finance the $25 million “C.V. Starr Community Center/Sigrid and Harry Spath Aquatic Center” — complete with two pools, an artificial river, meeting rooms, exercise rooms and machines — and a two-story water-slide. To the chagrin of many fog-eating locals, the place has no warmth giving saunas or community hot tub. By all accounts, the results of the new pool project were somewhat “dysfunctional.” “They built it at the wrong end of Maple Street,” Mr. Pollard said. “They covered up the best baseball field in town, forever. Green Memorial Field was willed to the city of Fort Bragg as a ball field. That's where the Pop Warner games took place, and all the softball leagues. Now it's gone forever.”

Mr. Pollard felt that that the C.V. Starr center would have been better located at the other end of Maple Street, at Main Street, on the GP mill property owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, who he said would have donated the land. “It would have been at the center of town, instead of covering Green Memorial Field,” he said.

Cornelius Vander Starr, who's foundation gave $16.5 million for the new C.V. Starr Center, was born and raised in Fort Bragg, and graduated from Fort Bragg High School. His foundation contributed to a number of worthy civic projects, and he had a special place in his heart for Fort Bragg. His largesse came from the fact that he was founder of the American International Group, the multi-billion dollar insurance conglomerate. But AIG was at the center of America’s financial collapse in September, 2008. AIG was bailed out by the federal government and forced to sell off many of its assets.

Meanwhile, for better or worse, the dreamers who just wanted a new city pool got a lot more than they bargained for — a behemoth that costs up to $20-$30K a month just in utility bills. The money to keep the aquatic center open soon dried up, and the C.V. Starr center closed its doors early this spring, unable to pay its bills. The property has been turned over to the City of Fort Bragg and the new aquatic facility is scheduled to re-open this July 28th.

For the Redwood Health Club, costs of heating and maintaining a large pool, hot tub, saunas, and the large indoor spaces were also prohibitive. In a normal world, these costs might have been subsidized by public funds. The electric bill at the Redwood Health Club was some $5,000 a month, and the cost for propane to heat the pools and saunas, even more. Mr. Pollard told me that with fluctuating prices and demand for propane, the record high bill had come in at $12,000 for a single month.

In 2001, after donating a good part of his life, and a lot of his hard earned cash, the Redwood Health Club was appraised at $1.5 million. Don took out $1.1 million in a re-finance loan, counting on revenues from the business to pay back the loan. But with some of the setbacks mentioned above, things didn't quite work out as planned. Eventually the club found itself in arrears for some $162,000 in back taxes. The money was repaid, but the bank called in the loan, and foreclosed on Fort Bragg's well-loved health club. “Now the bank owns it,” said Pollard.

The Redwood Health Club was part of the daily routine for many people, off and on, throughout the last 35 years. It served as a community center, a competitive arena, classrooms, a physical therapy facility, a conversation zone, a place to watch the Giants — and much more. Don Pollard built the RHC into what it was, and kept the business operating for over three decades. Many in this town, both young and old alike, are very sad to see it go. Some hope that new owners will step in to re-open the place.

Meanwhile, it's wait and see on how the new C.V. Starr and Spath Aquatic Center will fare under new management. But for the next month, people in Fort Bragg will have to find a new venue for a swimming hole.

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