EAU CLAIRE, WI -- Unity Health & Fitness, formerly known as Eau Claire Athletic Club, closed its doors Thursday after 22 years of operation in Eau Claire, WI.

Owner Jeff Sauter says the closure was because of financial reasons.

“We found ourselves doing more for less of a return,” Sauter says.

After opening as the Eau Claire Racquetball and Fitness Center in 1981, the club closed after four years and sat empty for a year before Sauter and his wife, Donna, took over the club in February 1986.

The Sauters changed the name of the club to Unity Health & Fitness in February 2006 and changed its business model from an athletic club to one that focused on the wellness aspect of fitness. The goal was to attract the non-traditional exercising market, and initially, that market responded, Sauter says. But what hurt the club was the lack of a strong marketing plan, he added.

“Seventy-five percent of people aren’t participating in clubs,” Sauter says. “Although we made huge inroads into that population, it still wasn’t enough of a membership number to basically meet our expenses and come out ahead.”

Sauter says the club would have closed its doors much earlier had it not changed its name and business model. Rent was not an issue for the Sauters, who owned the 42,000-square-foot facility. The cost of utilities, however, became a burden. Sauter says that utilities doubled from more than $40,000 in 2003 to more than $80,000 in 2006.

The 1,100 members at Unity Health & Fitness were notified in August that the club was up for sale and that there was a possibility that the club could close. Unity Health & Fitness arranged for membership opportunities for remaining members at another local health club as well as the local YMCA, says Sauter, who is now a member of both.

Sauter says he will try to sell his wellness program to other health clubs but has no plans to own a club again.

“Clubs are in a perfect position to be delivery vehicles for a health care solution,” Sauter says. “But we have to get people active.”