A total of 42,000 towels need to be replaced each year from Columbia Association gyms, including those that are frayed or worn out and others that just "walk out the door," Columbia Association officials said Wednesday.
The issue of towel theft in Columbia is back on the forefront of local conversation after the Wall Street Journal included the CA’s $500,000-a-year costs to replace and maintain towels in a national story about "terry-cloth bandits."
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It costs between $50,000 and $60,000 to replace the towels, which are provided at CA-operated gyms, CA officials said. The rest of the towel maintenance money is spent on washing, drying, folding and bleaching them, officials said.
“I wouldn’t accuse any of our members of stealing towels, but 42,000 towels a year is how many we buy,” said the CA’s director of the sports and fitness division, Bob Bellamy.
“You could say it’s a cost of doing business.”
In context, towel replacement is a small percentage – 0.04 percent --- of the gyms’ total annual expenses. In fiscal year 2013, the CA estimates $13.8 million in fitness center expenses.
There are a total of 23,000 memberships to CA gyms, with an estimated 50,000 people who have access to the facilities, Bellamy said. Towels are not provided at CA-operated pools, he said.
Two years ago, Columbia Association staff proposed eliminating gym towels, saying in the long haul, not having to wash, dry, fold and replace the stolen towels, would save nearly $5 million in 10 years.
Community outcry squelched the proposal and, at the time, membership rates were raised $2 a month to “take the sting off towels,” he said
Columbia Association officials were unable to provide cost ranges for memberships Wednesday.
“How much anger are you willing to take from the community?” Town Center representative Suzanne Waller was quoted as saying in Explore Howard in February of 2010. “They have spoken, loudly.”
In the meantime, fitness club officials have tried a variety of tactics to stem the practice of people walking away with gym towels.
At the exit of all three clubs, there’s a “last chance towel bin” where people can drop their dirty towels, Bellamy said.
Gyms have held “towel amnesty” days over the years, in which they get back some, but not a significant amount, of towels, he said.
As for whether the Columbia Association will talk about eliminating gym towel service again?
“What is it that James Bond said?” Bellamy said. “Never say never.
‘[But] I don’t see an appetite for it with our board at this time.”
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