Robert Downes 10/12/09
Death of a Gym
When a gym fails, it can be like the death of an old friend to its members. Such is the case at the Fitness Center, which closed its doors last week after 23 years on 8th Street in Traverse City.
Gyms have grown in importance over the past generation. Theyre a place to socialize and unwind; a place to break up the black ice of stress in your head and get motivated to take on the challenges of the next day. Gyms are about much more than getting in shape -- theyre about getting your life together and staying sane in what sometimes seems to be a crazy world.
That was literally true for some members of the Fitness Center, who were rehab patients with severe physical, mental and emotional challenges. Phil, for instance, suffers from cerebral palsy. Charles is another member who came to the gym for two to three hours every day since 1991 in an attempt to ease a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Russell worked out there to cope with mental challenges. Other members struggled with anorexia, severe spinal problems, and crippling injuries. The Fitness Center gave them hope and a home.
But the rug was pulled out from under its staff and loyal members with a curt notice that the Fitness Center was closing within a week -- a scenario that bewildered and upset its 300-some members.
In fact, Phil started crying when he heard the gym was closing because he thought hed done something wrong, said personal trainer Rhonda Brandt, whos been with the gym for the past 10 years.
Ive been a member of the Fitness Center myself for most of the years since 1986 and know that thousands of locals have passed through its doors. Weve logged a million miles on its Stairmasters and exercycles. Weve lifted an Everest of metal weights through the years. And many members made friends, found lovers, nailed business deals and argued the issues of the day there. Mostly, we got the spring back in our steps to face another day.
Why did such a well-loved gym fail? Owned by the McKinley Group of Ann Arbor, apparently, the Fitness Center lost some of its rehab and physical therapy business, coupled with a drop in insurance coverage for the patients who used its facility. Then too, Rhonda notes that increased competition from other gyms around town forced the Fitness Center to drop the price of its membership to cutthroat rates, and the gym occupies an old building that requires a lot of maintenance, with a big heating bill.
The staff was told by management that the business model for the Fitness Center no longer works, and although members rallied with the hope of leasing the building as a co-op gym, the owners werent interested. End of story.
Well, not quite. Rhonda Brandt has moved on to the Fitness Factor (the former Sweat Shop in TC), taking her clients with her for classes in spinning, fitness boot camp, and cardio-strength training.
I see quite a few familiar faces there, she says. Ive been blessed that a lot of my clientele has followed me. Some people are still shopping for other gyms and some are still hoping that someone will come out of the woodwork and buy the Fitness Center.
But that prospect doesnt seem likely. So what about Phil, Charles, Russell and the many other mentally and physically challenged people who found a home at 8th and Boardman Ave.?
Theyve got nowhere to go.