Every morning Layne Davis Hughes, a 58-year-old Falls Church housewife, used to head for a nearby health spa, dive into the pool and swim a mile.
Hughes' routine came to a halt in late January, when she arrived at the Fun & Fitness Exercise & Aquatic Center at 3321 Lee Hwy. in Arlington and found that it had closed.
In the past three years, at least 20 Washington-area spas have folded, leaving behind hundreds of bewildered and often angry customers. But instead of fuming, Hughes decided to act. Why not, she decided, form a cooperative and reopen the facility?
Not only would members get their spa back, she said, but they would have a voice in the running of the two swimming pools and steam rooms, saunas and exercise classes. If the venture proved successful, any profits could be reinvested in the spa.
Area consumer affairs officials said they have been besieged by abandoned spa customers and that they have never heard of a member-run spa. That has not deterred Hughes or her band of supporters. "I think it would be great if we could swing it -- just great," said Margaret Potter Leddy of McLean, who also swam at Fun & Fitness.
At the moment, it is unclear whether Hughes' group will be able to pull off the takeover. Their biggest obstacle is money.
Hughes said she needs $350,000 in order to pay rent to the building owners, A.J. Dwoskin Associates Inc., secure a $500,000 loan to replace gym equipment Fun & Fitness has removed and to make much-needed locker and other repairs.
"In my opinion, if she could get, say, 700 to 800 people to pledge $500 apiece in first-year memberships, I would say it would make the thing economically viable," said John J. Lyman, a senior commercial loan officer with the National Cooperative Bank and the group's financial adviser.
Hughes said she has $43,500 in pledges and certificates of deposit from about 45 people. "But I know there are other interested people out there," she said.
Finding them is another matter. Hughes said she cannot obtain the Fun & Fitness membership list. Without it, she does not know how to reach the 13,000 people who she said at one time belonged to the Arlington spa.
Beachwood Spas International, Inc. of Cleveland, which according to consumer officials operated the five Northern Virginia Fun & Fitness centers, has no listed telephone in that Ohio city.
"I'm still definitely full of hope," said Hughes. "What you have is the names you remember -- Johnson, Jones, Taylor and Thomas -- and just try finding those in a phone book," she said.
A letter outlining her idea has been sent to the approximately 1,000 Fun & Fitness members who have complained to Arlington County's Consumer Affairs ffice, said Jean Gallaway, the office director.
Hughes will hold a meeting for all former members interested in the cooperative idea at Yorktown High School at 8 p.m. Thursday
"We'll make the final decision that night about whether we are going to do this," she said. "Either there are enough people by then who are willing to pledge money to satisfy the bank and the owners of the building or there aren't."
A big obstacle could come from the building owners. A spokesman for Dwoskin Associates said he would be skeptical about signing agreements with another spa.
"We're looking to lease the property to somebody who can pay the rent and operate a business," he said, "and I don't know that a membership cooperative can do that."
Former Fun & Fitness exercisers who do not want to join a cooperative but who want to recoup membership losses should contact Arlington's consumer office by June 15. Fees ranged widely, said Gallaway, including $900 to $1,300 charges for seven-year contracts.
Under a new Virginia law, spas selling three-month or longer memberships now must post bonds or letters of credit in amounts ranging from $25,000 to $50,000 with the state's Office of Consumer Affairs.
There are as many as 225 health spas throughout the state and only 75 of those are bonded. State officials said they do not know whether the others are properly exempt from the bonding law.
In Maryland, where $50,000 bonding is required for clubs selling long-term memberships, 27 spas have shut in the past two years, according to Peter Berns, assistant attorney general for the state's consumer protection division.
There are currently 81 bonded Maryland health clubs, 41 that are exempt from bonding requirements and 19 others -- 11 of which have registration applications pending and eight of which have had administrative charges filed against them for failing to register and place bonds.
The $50,000 bond posted by the Lee Highway Fun & Fitness will be distributed among former members with legitimate claims, according to Virginia consumer spokesman Dan Zipperer.