Gyms feeling the burn in a bad economy

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
What do ya’ know? Apparently even New Year’s resolutions are being hit by the economic downturn.
With the economy in its worst shape since the days of the Great Depression, that 20 pounds we’ve all been meaning to shed may have to hang around a bit longer.
Bad economic times translate to cutbacks in nonessentials, gym memberships included.
“Y membership, that’s discretionary income,” said Jamie Morgan, chief executive officer of the YMCA of Rowan County.
“Some people just don’t have the cash right now.”
He said the budget for the four county YMCAs is down $400,000 from a year ago. Five or six YMCA employees, Morgan said, have had their jobs cut from full time to part time, or been eliminated entirely.
“We started seeing signs of trouble in the summer of ’08,” Morgan said. “We’ve had to cut back our staffing structure.”
The downturn is nationwide.
According to the International Healthy, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, gym and health club memberships jumped from 20 million in 1990 to 43 million today.
But the rate of growth has dropped considerably in recent years, from 4.2 percent in 2006 to 1.9 percent in 2007.
Traditionally, the health club industry has been a volatile one, with consolidation and sudden closures not unusual. Locally, GX Fitness, formerly located in downtown Salisbury, closed in June 2007 after its owners were unable to pay $50,862 in back rent and penalties to the city.
Morgan said the policy of the YMCA is to not turn anyone away from membership because of a person’s inability to pay.
Money to pay for those memberships comes from a variety of sources. And they’re being tapped to the maximum amount nowadays.
“Our requests for financial assistance have gone through the roof,” Morgan said.
He said the YMCA is also offering free three-month memberships to anyone recently laid off from a job.
“We’re just trying to do our part to help the community,” Morgan said.
At The Forum, a fitness center on South Main Street in Salisbury, co-owner Matt Marsh said his business hasn’t been hurt as badly by bad economic times as similar centers in larger municipalities.
“Our renewals are actually up from a percentage standpoint,” he said.
Marsh said in order to entice people to join, he and Steve Safrit, The Forum’s other owner, opted to do away with large, upfront joiner fees.
Now, Marsh said, members pay only $25 down and a monthly $27 membership fee, which entitles users to everything The Forum offers รณ child care during their workouts, included.
Marsh said with the economy hurting, many people don’t have hundreds of dollars to invest upfront for a membership.
“That scares a lot of people away,” Marsh said. “This is easier for them to handle.”
He said when the price of a gallon of gas climbed to almost $4 last fall, the number of members working out at The Forum declined.
Members who lived more than 15 miles from the fitness center, especially, cut back on their workouts.
“But those numbers have been coming back since gas prices dropped,” Marsh said.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222.