Trial Reveals Club's Shaky Finances Before 1989 Arson

October 09, 1991|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — Before it was destroyed by an early morning fire in 1989, the Four Seasons Sports Complex and Health Club was struggling, barely able to meet the payroll of its top two employees in its early years, court testimony showed yesterday.

As the $1.5 million negligence lawsuit brought by the Hampstead club and Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. against a cable company, a fire sprinkler installer and an underground irrigation firm enters its third week, the center's director testified that although the club had nearly 800 members in its first four months of operation, it rarely made a monthly profit.

Between April 1988 and June 1989 -- more than seven months after Kevin Bidelspach helped engineer the expansion and diversification ofthe one-time swimming and tennis club -- Four Seasons recorded an income of about $645,200. During the same period, Bidelspach testified yesterday, the operating expenses of the club totaled about $643,300,or about $1,700 less.

"I had to sometimes use my personal pay as a buffer," he said in response to a question from Jonathan E. Claiborne, the Towson attorney for Prestige Cable TV of Maryland Inc. Bidelspach and the center's second-in-command, Gregg Newman, sometimes did not cash their paychecks.

In testimony yesterday and last week, more financial information emerged about the club's transformation froma tennis and swimming club when Melvyn L. Newman purchased the center in 1985 to a diversified sports complex when Bidelspach came on board in 1987.

The suit, filed in January 1990, says that the failureof the club's fire sprinkler system on July 15, 1989, was caused by negligence on the part of Fire Protection Industries of Frederick, Prestige, and its cable installation contractors, North Central Services of Minnesota and A & M Underground Sprinklers of Westminster.

Throughout the trial, the defendants have tried to show that the fire was an arson, that the club's owners should have known of problems with the sprinkler system long before the fire and that the center's finances caused the owners to cut corners where possible.

The state Fire Marshal's Office declared the fire -- believed to be the costliest ever in Carroll -- an arson. No arrests have been made in the case.Newman and Bidelspach were given lie-detector tests after the fire.

The sprinkler that failed was a $50,000 system installed by Fire Protection Industries. The company's Baltimore attorney, William F. Gately, yesterday questioned Bidelspach to determine whether a remote alarm for the fire pump and sprinkler system was ever discussed.

Bidelspach told him that no one from the company ever talked to him about the need for such a device -- required under national fire codes -- or about its cost.

In response, Gately showed the court a lettersent to Bidelspach by Fireman's Fund in October 1987, in which the insurance company said the need for some type of central monitoring system for the fire sprinkler was an essential safeguard.

The trial,being heard by Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr., will continue today.

Four Seasons and Fireman's lawyer, John F. Brown Jr. of Philadelphia, would not comment on a nearly three-hour morning meeting yesterday involving Fire Protection Industries and Four Seasons and Fireman's Fund.

Gately said of the meeting, "There's nothing I can commenton. That's all I'm supposed to say."

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