PLAINS TWP. — To hear Dave Sommers tell it, the government gives and the government taketh away … and the government sometimes doesn’t even recognize one of it’s own when doing the taking.
With combed-back hair and beefed-up biceps befitting a man who spent his adult life in the business of fitness, former Navy man Sommers would love to show you his gym, but he can barely show you the building that houses it. He stands in the parking lot of a company near the Social Security Administration building on East Mountain Boulevard and points to a silver car in the SSA parking lot.
“That’s security. If you go in there, they’ll be on you in a second,” he said.
Sommers said he has run Shape Up Fitness in the SSA building for 11 years. In fact, it was the building personnel who asked him to start a fitness center.
“They supply the equipment and the room,” he said. “I supply insurance and pay any employees.”
Initially, Sommers said, SSA not only allowed people from outside the building to use the facility, the agency encouraged it. With that opportunity, he built his client list up to a peak of “about 250.”
But something changed dramatically that he contends will likely put him out of business.
Sommers received a letter from SSA dated March 5 noting that “non-federal employees or non-federal contractors … are no longer permitted to use” his fitness center “for security and liability concerns.”
Sommers said that almost as soon as he posted the notice, as he was required to, customers started dropping off.
“It decimated my business immediately,” Sommers said, adding that his customer count slid to about 150. “They knew they would have to find another place, and I can’t blame them.”
Yet the new security rules do not apply to a day-care center in the building, Sommers said. “They said the day care has a separate outside entrance, so it’s secure.”
But he argues his clients have to pass two guards and screening equipment to get into the section of the building housing his gym, and once they are there they have no access to other parts of the building.
But the day care has only one guard and no screening equipment, and those who enter theoretically have access to other parts of the building.
“Children go in with book bags and stuffed animals and no X-ray machines,” Sommers said, “I hate to use the word, but if anyone would look at these two business and think the day care is more secure, they would be a moron.”
There is also a federal credit union in the building which, Sommers said, has also fallen under the new security rules and cannot serve customers who do not work in the building.
Looking for help, or at least some answers, Sommers contacted U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic. Sommers said a representative from Cartwright’s office came to check the place out “and see if it was the way I said,” but the guards wouldn’t let him in, even after showing credentials.
Cartwright’s spokesman, Shane Seaver, confirmed that the representative was looking into the matter but had no other comment.
Social Security response
An email to the Social Security press office in Baltimore prompted the following written response from William Jarrett:
“It’s non-Federal employees and non-Federal contractors who are no longer permitted to use the Wilkes-Barre Data Operations Center (WBDOC) Fitness Center. The decision was made due to security concerns and only credentialed individuals should be permitted access. The fitness center, as well as the credit union, is inside the secure area.
“As for the day care center, the main entrance is separate from the secure, WBDOC section of the facility.”
For the former sailor who worked in “crash and salvage” on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, the response is not much of an answer. He fears that, once limited to people who work in the building, he’ll probably have only about 80 clients.
“You certainly couldn’t run a business,” he said.
And the prospect of relocating or otherwise re-establishing himself seems daunting. “”I started this business when I was 41 years old. I’m 52, and at 52 it’s a lot harder to reinvent yourself again, and this business is tough.”
In fact, he suspects he got the opportunity to run the gym in part because his Navy background meant he could be trusted.
“The ironic thing is I thought I was getting into the business because of security,” Sommers said. “And that’s what’s killing my business.”