Between the oilfield slump and the coronavirus shutdown, it's become increasingly difficult for the owners of The Fontana Center to keep the facility open.

After all, the bulk of their occupational therapy customers are oilfield service businesses, and the majority of their fitness center members are at high-risk for complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

"The business has taken a huge hit," owner Paul Fontana said. "Without a doubt, we would have folded totally without the Paycheck Protection (Program) grant that came through."

The Fontana Center staff has dwindled down to just seven employees. That number was 49 five years ago.

A for-sale sign went up last month in front of the center at 709 Kaliste Saloom Road. The building and business were listed for sale about six months ago, before the first confirmed coronavirus case in Acadiana, as the owners prepared for their retirement.

"We're kind of, you know, developing our exit strategy," said Rose Fontana, who helped to build the business with her husband. "We've got the building up for sale, and we figure it's going to take time to find the right buyer for the building. We're working hard to keep the fitness program and the industrial occupational therapy programs going, and we'll see what happens."

Ideally, the Fontanas hope to sell the business to someone who will continue their work moving forward. If not, they're open to selling the building to someone with a different business in mind.

The 22,000-square-foot facility has been nearly empty for much of the year because of circumstances, but it's been an important part of life for many people — especially those who feel out of place at traditional gyms.

"The clientele that we typically have in our fitness program are not the folks that you'll see at Red's or Anytime Fitness or CrossFit," Rose Fontana said. "We feel like we have developed a niche market here. These are people that either cannot, or would prefer not to, go to other gym facilities."

One of those customers was a 102-year-old woman. Another was a child with autism. One was preparing for weight-loss surgery.

Martha Harris, billing coordinator for The Fontana Center, said her favorite part of her job is watching friendships blossom between members.

"I love getting to know the fitness members who have been coming to the center for years," Harris said. "These are people who are dedicated to taking care of their health, and many of them have health concerns, but they don't give up. It's very inspiring."

Although the fitness side of the business is best known by the community at large, The Fontana Center started primarily as an occupational therapy center unlike any other. 

Paul Fontana, who is an occupational therapist by trade, started his own business in a smaller facility in the 1980s with simulated workplace settings. Soon after, he opened a companion physical therapy center where injured workers could recover and relearn skills from both physical and occupational therapists.

In 1998, the Fontanas opened their expansive center on Kaliste Saloom. They included a gym and pool so those who no longer needed physical or occupational therapy would be able to continue progressing on their own.

"Occupational therapy is about getting people back to their higher level of function," Paul Fontana said. "Even those who may never work again, I want them to be functional to where they can enjoy life and their grandkids and whatever else they want to do."

The business grew through the 2000s but took a hit when the oilfield did a few years ago. 

The 7,000-square-foot warehouse, which has simulated workplace settings, is no longer busy with activity like it once was.  

In 2018, the facility did about 6,000 new hire tests for companies. Last year, they did just 900. This year, they're not sure if they'll even hit 600.

Paul and Rose Fontana have been hoping to retire within a few years to spend more time with their grandchildren, and the sale of the facility will make that goal a reality.

"The business has been a wonderful addition to the community," Paul Fontana said. "It's been meeting a population that no one else was really servicing or reaching out to on the fitness side, and then on the industrial side, I've got hundreds of stories where people came back and said, 'You saved my life.'

"I'm just real proud of that and the good work we've done in the community."

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