The FIT Center isn’t just a place to exercise but one of Shelter Island’s crucial community centers. From when it opens early in the morning until it shuts down in the late evening, members of the community of all kinds throw on their sweat bands and workout shorts and head inside to break a sweat.
To create such a vital and thriving community center, it took a grass-roots effort of many generous individuals, more than could reasonably be listed here.
The story starts with two juniors at the Shelter Island High School. Lila Piccozzi and Maura Regan were co-presidents of the Student Council in the spring of 1997. “They wanted to leave a significant gift for the school,” said Cliff Clark, who was the track coach at the time and was brought on to the project early on.
The two girls knew first-hand about the need for a better weight room. Ms. Piccozzi was a tennis player and ran on the track team, and Ms. Regan played basketball and was captain of the volleyball team. At that time, the ball closet that now houses the school’s gym supplies like basketballs and volleyball nets served as the school’s workout center. All that the tiny room contained was an outdated universal gym, a type of weight machine.
The girls wanted to replace the machine, and received estimates at around $3,500. “They spoke to a few adults,” said Mr. Clark, “who told them they thought that was too ambitious. And I told them I thought they were thinking too small.” After some brainstorming with Mr. Clark, they came up with the idea for a larger state-of-the-art fitness facility that could be used by the community as well as the school.
On March 3, 1997, the girls held the first official meeting of the project’s steering committee. The project attracted two other groups looking to add to or upgrade the community’s recreational resources. Jim Read, then-Supervisor Hoot Sherman and Linda Springer, a Shelter Island School Board member at that time, were part of a town tennis court committee which was interested in building courts for use by the public and a future school tennis team. Chuck and Ken Kraus, Dave Clark and others involved with the Island Little League program were seeking to build new baseball fields. The three groups met on March 12 at Justice Hall to see if they could join their efforts.
The groups decided to coordinate their plans into one unified fundraising drive rather than competing with each other for funds, and so the F.I.T. project (Fitness center, Improved ball fields and Tennis courts) was born.
The original proposed cost breakdown was $100,000 for the 75- by 25-foot fitness facility, $75,000 for the tennis courts and $50,000 for the ball fields, to be gathered through fundraising. Another $25,000 would pay for various administrative and clerical costs.
The Town Board and School Board approved the projects in principle at their May 6 and May 12, 1997 meetings, provided the entire cost of construction could be covered through fundraising.
The fundraising drive was enormous and involved many people. Professional fundraiser Mel Mendlesson took a central role. Fundraisers were held at the homes of Michael and Joan Coles, co-chairs of the FIT fundraising committee who gave a generous contribution, and Paul and Julie Ben-Susan, among others. Students participated in fundraisers including bake sales, car washes and a dinner cruise on South Ferry, just to name a few.
The fundraising efforts also included selling specialty license plates, spearheaded by current FIT Center Director Garth Griffin and Doug Rilling. The plates were approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles and featured the shape of Shelter Island. Part of the cost of each plate that was purchased went back into the FIT Center funds.
By August 7, 1997, the FIT fundraising committee had raised $175,000.
The Little League field was pledged by some supporters to be memorialized in the name of Andrew Fiske, a past School Board president who fought for the original construction of the field when that wasn’t thought to be a popular expenditure.
By January 15, 1998, $242,000 had been collected with an additional $40,000 pledged. During a January 12 Project FIT Committee meeting, school Superintendent Lydia Axlerod said of the large amount that had been raised, “In my entire career I have never seen a reaching out of that nature.”
Before the FIT Center even opened, there were already 160 members signed up. That number quickly grew to around 500 people once its operation began. The membership has surged and lulled over the years, but currently is at around 530 to 550 people, according to FIT Center Director Garth Griffin.
Ms. Piccozzi and Ms. Regan saw their dream of a fitness center become a reality on August 16, 1998 at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the completed FIT Center.
During the ceremony, Mr. Clark mentioned the seemingly non-stop effort by the volunteers, and especially down the stretch by James Eklund, who took on some general contractor duties. “James kept that project going,” Mr. Clark said.
After its grand opening, the FIT Center agreed to allow physical therapists from Eastern Long Island Hospital to practice in the physical therapy room of the FIT Center, thereby providing yet another service to the physical health of the Shelter Island community.