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December 28, 2012

Flex owner Charles Fleck dies at age 73

Cleveland--Charles R. Fleck, who helped start the Club Baths chain and later founded the Flex chain of bathhouses, spas and hotels, passed away on November 21 at his home in Miami, Florida. His death at age 73 was described as “suddenly, from natural causes.”

Fleck turned Flex Cleveland--once the West 9th Street Club Baths--into the world’s largest bathhouse in 2006 when he moved it into a former Greyhound bus garage and drivers’ dormitory at East 26th Street and Hamilton Avenue. The space now includes hotel rooms, indoor and outdoor pools, and the Mean Bull bar.

Long a champion of community organizations, Fleck led the response to the HIV epidemic in the most logical way he knew--bringing in AIDS service organizations to do testing, providing informational pamphlets and, of course, distributing thousands upon thousands of free condoms.

“I’ll show you my condom bill sometime,” he told a Cleveland Scene reporter in a 2006 article. “I buy more condoms than anyone.”

He founded Fleck and Associates in 1977. Since then, it has expanded and diversified into real estate investment, restaurants, commercial transportation, property and financial management.

He fought both Atlanta and New Orleans, where local politicians tried to block the opening of bathhouses, going all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, where he claimed victory.

“His vision was to bring Flex spas back to the way spas are in Europe, and how they began in the USA in the early ’60s and ’70s,” said Todd Saporito, Fleck’s chosen successor, at the World AIDS Day observations in Cleveland. Saporito, who is also president of Cleveland Pride, is now board director, president and CEO of Fleck’s companies. “These spas were safe places where people can meet others, be educated on current topics affecting the industry, receive services and develop friendships.”

“Charles was very philanthropic as well. His focus for Flex was not just to provide financial aid to organizations in need, but to become true working partners with these organizations by working side by side serving all affected demographics--straight and gay, male and female, rich and poor, black and white,” Saporito said. “He ensured that the business was open every day of the year, especially during the holidays, to ensure everyone had a place to visit, even though they may have been disowned from family and friends.”

Saporito, who spent six years as a senior vice president with National City Bank, was brought into Fleck’s businesses three years ago and groomed to take a leadership role as the founder segued into retirement.

“We saw a progression of him transitioning the corporation to his heirs, with me leading the organization as a director of the board, president and CEO,” Saporito said. “We did not expect or anticipate that this would happen so quickly.”

“Our vision was clear on how we would continue to integrate all of the businesses, while concurrently growing the overall corporation. Our focus remains to be a significant community leader for LGBT business, with a focus on assisting those organizations that concentrate on providing food, shelter, clothing and medicine to their constituents,” he said. “We will continue to follow the path developed by Charles and his management team to achieve our future goals.”

“Personally, this has been a very humbling experience, as I have lost a very close friend, mentor and leader in my life,” he concluded. “I only hope to achieve the level of success for Charles’ corporations to ensure that his legacy will live on.”

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