EASTHAM — The Dec. 12 order shutting down Willy’s World Wellness & Conference Center is the latest chapter in a long and troubled history of the popular gym. Eastham Building Commissioner Thomas Wingard’s posted notice cited “life safety concerns, numerous violations, including work without permits, failure to maintain equipment, etc.”
But new details have emerged about events leading up to Wingard’s action that contradict owner Barbara Niggel’s statements about the violations and explain what drove town officials to take decisive action last month. Her jolly email messages to members about the gym’s imminent reopening are misleading, said these officials.
Four weeks before Wingard’s action, on Nov. 14, the fire dept. came to Willy’s after a gym member told a Willy’s employee there was smoke in a back hallway by the locker room, according to Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe. Fire officials found light smoke in a utility room and a strong electrical smell. The temperature in the building was about 48 degrees. They found an improperly vented gas heater in the sauna-hot tub area and multiple electric space heaters all over the building. They ordered them removed.
The fire alarms and sprinkler system had stopped working, Beebe said.
Normally, these conditions would require that the business be shut down until the fire suppression system was fixed. But, Beebe said, town officials wanted to help Niggel — a pattern that had been established over several years because of sympathy for the gym’s owner and recognition of the importance of the facility for the community.
And Niggel was in the process of connecting Willy’s sprinkler system to town water. So Fire Chief Kent Farrenkopf made an exception. He allowed Willy’s to stay open under a “fire watch” condition. This meant a staff member must walk through the 87,754-square-foot building daily to check for signs of danger and keep a log to be reviewed by a town fire inspector, Beebe said.
The fire watch was required to occur during business hours.
A raucous Jamaican holiday party was held inside Willy’s on Saturday night, Dec. 7, organized by a company called Connie Promotions: Nothing to Something. Videos of the party posted on social media show a large crowd of men in shiny tuxedos, women in glittery mini-dresses, and revelers dancing and splashing in champagne.
The videos made their way to Eastham Town Hall, where Fire Chief Farrenkopf and Beebe watched them, focused not on the music but on the exit door that was blocked by exercise equipment pushed to the wall.
That, said Beebe, was the last straw.
Not only was Niggel having a party without a one-day entertainment license and in violation of the conditions of her liquor license, she said, it was held after hours without working smoke alarms or a sprinkler system. Farrenkopf and Beebe had visions of the February 2003 Station Nightclub fire in West Warwick, R.I., which killed 100 people and injured 230.
Town officials confronted Niggel, who emphatically denied that the party had taken place. They showed her the video, Beebe said, and Niggel then said that the party had “slipped her mind” and that she didn’t realize it was in violation of her liquor license.
Niggel would not comment this week about the Dec. 7 party or other charges made by town officials and Willy’s members in response to reporters’ questions for this article.
“We are doing everything that the town is requiring of us,” Niggel told the Independent. “We are even doing more than that, because we have the opportunity. … I think Willy’s is the biggest business and the lights are on us. It’s hard for any business on Cape Cod to do anything and it’s a lot harder when you have people working against you.”
Beebe said that the town has made accommodations for Niggel for years to help her stay open despite serious fire and health problems dating back to 2013. These included lack of exit doors that open, failure to maintain and test the fire suppression system, and failure to remove electric extension cords and daisy chains in spite of repeated warnings.
In 2015, Eversource cut off Willy’s power because of “an extremely large past due balance,” company spokesman Michael Durand told the Cape Cod Times. In January 2017, the town informed Niggel that, because of repeated bounced checks, it would accept payments from her only as cash, certified bank check, or money order.
Since being closed, Niggel has sent numerous cheery emails to her members. (She declined to say how many members Willy’s has.)
“Hi all,” began a Jan. 2 email. “Progress! Progress! Progress! Extra, extra read all about it… the pipe was delivered and is in the parking lot waiting to be installed tomorrow!!! Yes that’s right tomorrow!!!!!! And the contractor is working thru the weekend… we are off and running and can’t wait to reopen for you… better than ever and definitely the safest building in Eastham.”
Beebe said these emails were so misleading that she posted a statement on the town website on Jan. 7, saying that the gym needs a full structural and mechanical engineering analysis. The town wants to see that Willy’s electrical capacity is sufficient, that the fire suppression system is working, and that there is an operational HVAC system to solve chronic heating, air-conditioning, and ventilation complaints, Beebe said.
Members Lose Trust
Gym members told the Independent that Willy’s is the only place of its kind on the Outer Cape and is hugely important.
With indoor and outdoor tennis courts; indoor swimming pool; indoor climbing wall; fitness center; yoga, spin, and other fitness classes; space for parties; and a pool table and card table on the second floor, “It’s a big part of the community,” said Peter Weinman, a regular tennis player. “We really need Willy’s to be open.”
But many members described maintenance issues that have been going on for years. They said lack of heat made indoor tennis and workouts in the fitness center in the winter unpleasant. In summer, inadequate air-conditioning made it too hot to exercise.
In a Dec. 14 email to members, Niggel wrote that the gym’s heating and air-conditioning system was being replaced.
Members also cited problems with lighting, overall cleanliness, and safety.
David Bernstein, who bought a lifetime membership and is a regular tennis player, said Niggel has been misleading the community for years. “It’s as irresponsible as I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Anne Sigsbee, another lifetime member, said Niggel had collected donations from tennis-playing members to improve the courts, a project that was never completed.
Now Niggel may be trying to get rid of the outdoor tennis courts entirely. She asked the zoning board of appeals on Jan. 2 for a special permit to construct six storage units. Her plan was to remove four outdoor courts to make room for them.
The plan was not well received. ZBA members and citizens said the four storage units currently on the property have not been properly maintained and are surrounded by trash.
Member Steve Wasby said until the violations that led to the gym’s closing are corrected, and the trash surrounding the present storage units is removed, the ZBA should not give her a special permit.
Bernstein said Niggel charged a seasonal fee for outdoor courts this year, which he refused to pay.
Unpaid Staff, Health Violations
The Independent reviewed health violations dating back to 2009 at Willy’s and found a consistent pattern of complaints related to visible mold on the pool room walls and ceiling. The Nauset Regional High School swim teams practice here. It is also where the ceiling partially collapsed into the pool in April 2018.
Following the ceiling collapse, Wingard wrote that he observed “extremely high humidity caused by a lack of mechanical ventilation. … Extensive mold and mildew was observed on the pool deck, walls, and ceiling. … The collapse is possibly caused by excess moisture and a lack of ventilation.”
The gym’s staff have complained regularly that they are not paid in a timely fashion, Beebe said. Meanwhile, members continue to have automatic payments charged to credit cards and deducted from bank accounts while the gym is closed, without a definitive timetable for reopening.
In the Dec. 14 email, Niggel wrote, “We will keep you posted daily and any time lost will be credited to your memberships.”
Niggel does have continuing support from many people in the community.
“It takes a lot of maintenance,” said Bill Ferguson. “Barbara has done a hell of a job keeping the costs low.”
Ferguson moved to the Cape from Iowa about 20 years ago, and he’s been a member at Willy’s ever since. He plays tennis at the facility regularly and has made friends there over the years.
“Every friend I’ve made on the Cape has been from Willy’s,” he said. “It’s still a one-of-a-kind facility in my eyes.”
In 2019, Niggel refinanced the property, which she bought in 2002 for $1.2 million. In the refinancing she borrowed $4.6 million from GreenLake Investment Fund, a hedge fund based in Pasadena, Calif., according to the mortgage document. The Willy’s property is currently assessed by the town at less than $3.2 million.
Niggel was ordered to pay $177,081 in restitution after being indicted by a Boston grand jury in 2014 for failure to make unemployment tax payments. According to the attorney general’s office, Niggel was on probation until May 2019. That probation has ended, and she no longer owes anything, the attorney general’s office reported.