Local exercise centers struggle with small-town problems

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Nathan Boyd of The Gym was surprised by a flurry of new membership signups at the end of last month, as refugees from Forest Grove Fitness hunted for an alternative gym.After years of powering through tough workouts on leg presses or ellipticals, Forest Grove Fitness members are powering through a different kind of challenge: finding a new gym.

Since May 28, when the popular fitness center closed its doors, between 40 and 50 former members have already inquired at Anytime Fitness in Cornelius, though many are hesitant to commit again, said owner Janet Conkey.

“The unfortunate thing for the industry is that many members feel like they’ve been betrayed,” Conkey said.

Burt and Sandy Kaplan were two who didn’t hesitate. The Forest Grove couple transferred to Anytime Fitness just a few days after Forest Grove Fitness closed. So far, they’re pleased with the switch.

“There were a number of others there we knew,” said Burt, who recognized faces from his former gym.

It’s still unclear exactly why Forest Grove Fitness closed, but fitness centers across western Washington County have faced a mix of challenges, from the same recession that affected their bigger, more urban brethren, to the high costs that prove more of a problem in small towns.

Fitness centers felt the economic pinch just as sharply as other businesses, said Nathan Boyd, who has led The Gym (formerly Powerhouse Gym) in Forest Grove’s Mountain View shopping center through economic highs and lows since 2009.

Boyd took ownership of The Gym during the economy’s low point, when membership dropped to as few as 500 people. He said The Gym is back up to roughly 650 members, and he was surprised by a flurry of new sign-ups at the end of last month when some Forest Grove Fitness “refugees” decided to make The Gym their new home.

Independent fitness centers such as Forest Grove Fitness are less protected from economic fluctuations than those connected to larger franchises such as Anytime Fitness, said Conkey, who owns three Anytime Fitness locations.

When Anytime Fitness in Tigard ran into financial trouble, Conkey said, the franchise intervened to keep doors open. Anytime Fitness in Cornelius saw a 15 percent drop in membership about two and a half years ago, but has more than bounced back, reaching an all-time high a month ago.

Conkey said many small-town fitness centers are also crippled by heavy overhead costs that busier gyms — with a bigger share of membership dues — shoulder more easily. She pays as much as $1,000 a month for electricity alone in Cornelius, not to mention costs for water and other utilities, plus building maintenance, rent and salaries.

Cleaning and upkeep also add to the stack of fitness-center bills. Boyd said owners spend tens of thousands of dollars every year on equipment upgrades and facility remodels. A new line of treadmills, a locker room overhaul and routine carpet cleaning all factor into the cost of operation. Constant improvements must counter constant use in the high-traffic fitness industry.

Conkey said gyms in sparsely populated areas often have higher membership fees because they have to cover the same costs from a smaller pool of members.

On the other hand, steeper prices also buy small-town members shorter lines and less crowded workouts that are closer to home, she said.

Members of Curves in Banks drive from as far as Vernonia and North Plains to exercise, said owner Kathy Douglas. She lost about 100 members in 2008 when some commuters opted to conserve gas, but today many of her 200 members carpool.

Douglas has seen the number of 65-and-over members double during the last two years since Curves incorporated insurance-funded wellness programs such as Silver and Fit. At least half of the recently ousted Forest Grove Fitness members are senior citizens, and many — including the Kaplans — paid for their gym memberships by subscribing to wellness programs. Local Curves and Anytime Fitness clubs are among those that support Silver and Fit wellness programs.

The Curves in Forest Grove, recently under new ownership, is waiving its service fee for Forest Grove Fitness refugees and may stay open extra hours for couples and men. Curves also has a location in Cornelius, and 24-Hour Fitness in Hillsboro may see an increase in membership as people decide to exercise nearer to work than home.

Conkey said about 35 percent of members at Anytime Fitness in Cornelius are Forest Grove residents and that number has grown significantly in the last year — even before Forest Grove Fitness closed.

She has purchased the rights to open another Anytime Fitness franchise within the year and is considering locations in Forest Grove, including Forest Grove Fitness’ old space.

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