EASTHAM — It appears that Willy’s World Wellness & Conference Center, closed since Dec. 12 because of serious health and safety code violations, could reopen in a matter of weeks, according to Town Administrator Jacqui Beebe and a structural engineer hired by Willy’s owner Barbara Niggel.
“Consistent progress is being made to resolve all safety issues so the club can be reopened, and its members can once again enjoy the facility,” Beebe wrote on March 2. On Tuesday, however, she said that unresolved issues could delay the completion of renovations indefinitely. “I cannot even make an educated guess” about a reopening date, Beebe said.
A March 9 email to Niggel from Bob Paulino of the Dempsey Group, an engineering firm in Foxboro, stated that “fire protection, sprinkler systems, electrical, plumbing, structural and architectural repair work are all over 90 percent complete and expecting completion and inspection by the end of the week.” One permit for mechanical work on the heating and ventilation system, though, still remained to be issued, Paulino wrote.
The popular gym, with its swimming pool, indoor tennis courts, and fitness center, was shut down by the town, the Independent reported on Jan. 16, after video of an illegal after-hours holiday party appeared online showing a large crowd in the gym with an exit door blocked by exercise equipment pushed to the wall.
Fire inspectors had previously found an improperly vented gas heater, illegal use of space heaters, and a nonfunctional fire-alarm and sprinkler system, but had allowed the gym to stay open only under an unusual “fire-watch” condition, requiring daily monitoring of the 87,000-square-foot building.
While Willy’s may reopen soon, questions about Niggel’s business practices, long the subject of complaints by employees, suppliers, contractors, and town officials, remain unanswered. Consequences from the illegal Dec. 7 after-hours party, held in violation of Willy’s liquor license, is one unresolved issue.
“The select board will be discussing the issue of the licenses separately once she is back open,” Beebe told the Independent. “We will be actively policing the non-approved activities.”
Meanwhile, since the Independent’s January report, more than 10 former employees of Willy’s, members of their families, and independent contractors have come forward with new information about unsafe conditions at the gym, bouncing paychecks, lawsuits, and questionable financial dealings going back many years.
Francine Abbott of South Dennis, the widow of Joe Abbott, a tennis coach at the gym, claims that Niggel owed him more than $20,000 in unpaid wages and loans when he died last year. Niggel denies this and has hired a lawyer to represent her in the dispute.
The importance of Willy’s athletic and health facilities to the community has played a central role in keeping it open in spite of a pattern of neglected maintenance and unpaid bills. Now, if Willy’s is able to reopen, some are asking, will anything change?
Water Quality Issues
Niggel came to Cape Cod and opened her first gym in Orleans in 1985 in the so-called underground mall. In 2002, she bought the former Norseman Athletic Club, a sprawling metal building on Route 6 in Eastham. Thick folders of health code violations are stored in both Orleans, where she operated a gym until 2015, and Eastham town halls.
At Willy’s in Orleans, the hot tubs, which were old and constantly breaking, had to be tested four times a day, said Steve Wagenhoffer, who was a manager there from 2007 to 2014.
“It was not unheard of that employees would make up numbers, because God forbid the hot tubs closed,” Wagenhoffer said. “Then customers would complain and Barbara would scream at the employees. I was once asked by Barbara to put bottled water in samples going to a testing company for analysis. I refused.”
Orleans health records show complaints about Willy’s dating back to 2007. A hot tub water sample submitted to Envirotech Labs on March 11, 2013 was found to have 30 times the bacteria limit set by the health dept.
Questions about health and safety at Willy’s submitted to Niggel in writing by the Independent elicited a letter on March 9 from Edward W. Kirk, an Osterville attorney.
Kirk wrote that there “probably were occasions when the quality of the water in the hot tubs fell below the required standard. Employees were never ordered to substitute bottled water for the actual water samples…. Envirotech has stated that after poor results from a test in 2013, the water was retested with a good result.”
Lawsuits by the Dozen
A review of records at Orleans District Court found that a total of 26 people filed suit against Niggel between 2007 and 2019, including contractors, vendors, gym members, and employees. One of them was Shawn DeLude, president of Nauset Disposal in Orleans, who took Niggel to court to recover some of the $7,000 he said she owed him.
“She doesn’t pay anyone,” said DeLude, adding that Niggel’s reputation among contractors is awful.
“I think it’s great that the town is holding her feet to the fire,” DeLude said.
Sally LaRue, a manager at both the Orleans and Eastham gyms on and off for over 20 years, said she had to chase Niggel down for paychecks, and that twice Niggel did not pay the employer portion of her health insurance premium, leaving LaRue without medical coverage. LaRue eventually got paid, she said, but the confrontations with Niggel were emotionally exhausting.
Attorney Kirk wrote, in reference to the 26 lawsuits between 2007 and 2019, “That would average out to approximately two per year. The business has indeed experienced financial hardships and lean times, but has never sought to avoid its financial obligations. To the owner’s knowledge, any such claims which were brought during that 12 year period were paid or otherwise settled.”
Kirk also wrote that “the dispute with Mr. DeLude took place more than 12 years ago. … He settled for $2,000.00. His statement to you that the owner’s reputation is ‘awful’ and that ‘she doesn’t pay anyone’ is false and defamatory.”
As for LaRue’s complaint, Kirk wrote, “It is possible that on two occasions payment of the insurance premium was not received on time and a notice of cancellation was mailed. To the owner’s knowledge there never was an actual cancellation of the policy or loss of coverage.”
The Case of Joe Abbott
Niggel may be headed back to court in the case of Joe and Francine Abbott.
Joe, who was 63, collapsed inside Willy’s Gym on Aug. 7, 2019, and later died of a heart attack. He had been the tennis pro there since 2012. Francine, his widow, said her husband “adored” Niggel and would bend over backward to make her happy. What Francine said she didn’t know until she examined their financial records after Joe’s death was that Niggel owed him more than $20,000.
“She is such a good manipulator,” said Francine. “It’s just eating me alive right now.”
The last few months of Joe’s life were particularly taxing, said his wife. In addition to redoing the outdoor courts, he was running the entire tennis program, including private lessons and coaching teams, she said.
Francine said he would leave home just after 7 a.m. and get back after 9 p.m. His workday was so packed he could barely eat, she said.
“Those women in his tennis group, they took care of him,” Francine said. “They brought him food.”
Through her lawyer, Niggel denied that she owed Abbott $20,000. “If and to the extent it is demonstrated that Joe Abbott was owed any money at the time of his death, that amount will be paid,” wrote Kirk. “Given her long-standing relationship with Joe Abbott, my client would be of the opinion that Joe Abbott would not be happy with the allegations being made against my client at this time, including the allegation that she had mistreated him in any way.”
In spite of its history, Willy’s Gym remains a treasured resource on the Lower Cape. Barbara Niggel continues to find employees and contractors willing to work for her (although at least two report that they insist on being paid first, by bank check).
Willy’s members have been loyal, too. Even when they call the town to complain about the gym being unsafe or unclean, said Beebe, they often start by saying, “Please don’t shut her down, but….”
Why has Niggel’s staff stayed for so long? Everyone asks that question, said Brenda Miranda, who worked as group exercise director from 2002 to 2014 and also reported bounced and late paychecks.
“All of us,” said Miranda, “including Joe — who talked about his tennis people with such passion — all of us say, it’s the members. We stayed for them.”
Staff writer Ryan Fitzgerald contributed to this report.