by Mike Dunphy
It’s 6 pm at Planet Fitness in Berlin, and the blood is pumping. Atop, inside, and underneath the more than 140 bright purple and yellow cardio and weight machines, arranged in military rows, dozens of people are sweating out the calories of the holidays, creating a sense of machinery in motion akin to a factory assembly line, with treadmills standing in for conveyor belts.
Clearly, the initial success of Planet Fitness is significant, no doubt to the chagrin—if not outright fear—of fellow Berlin gym First in Fitness and Barre’s Snap Fitness. Whether the burst of activity at Planet Fitness is long lasting or merely represents the thrill of anew toy, the remorse of holiday consumption, or the fresh (and soon abandoned) resolutions of a new year, remains to be seen. However, It inevitably raises several questions for residents of downtown Montpelier: Why is there still no gym in Montpelier more than a year after the closure of the local branch of First in Fitness? Is a gym sustainable in downtown Montpelier? Did Planet Fitness even consider locating in Montpelier?
What Sustains a Gym?
Peeking behind the business curtain is never easy when dealing with corporations as large as Planet Fitness, which operates in more than 1,400 locations across the country and claims annual revenue stopping a hundred million dollars. The owners of the Berlin Mall where the gym is located, Heidenberg Properties, did not respond to inquiries from The Bridge. But Justin Alleman, Senior Regional Operations Manager of Planet Fitness, said, “When choosing a location, we look at several factors, such as demographics, available real estate, and build-out costs. We are very excited to have opened a location in Berlin and appreciate the warm welcome that we have received.
”The question of the sustainability of a gym in Montpelier remains open and unresolved since the loss of the First in Fitness downtown branch. It is still a sore spot for many and a source of ongoing debate over the reasons for its departure. As city council member, Dona Bate, noted, “We lost the facility we had. We let First in Fitness go out of town with hardly a blink. I was very sad.”
Costs and Values of Membership
Any hope the proposed Hampton Inn & Suites project in downtown Montpelier could offer some relief, as it will include a fitness center and a pool, were dashed in a phone call with Fred Bashara, who noted that only hotel guests would get access.
Even if allowed, however, it’s reasonable to expect the membership cost would be high, or at least much higher than the $10 base rate Planet Fitness charges. Compare that with the $90-per-month rate at First in Fitness, the $50 rate at Snap, and the $100-plus rates at downtown yoga and fitness studios, it’s easy to understand the attraction and excitement generated by Planet Fitness, regardless of the fact that it lacks the pool, sauna, and racquetball courts of First in Fitness, the group classes of Snap, or even the assistance of on-site professional trainers. Indeed, once you get past the welcome desk at Planet Fitness, there’s basically nobody on the floor to help members manage the machines or adopt proper form (based on my five visits).
The Dream of a New Gym
Nonetheless, the dream of a downtown gym persists, and groups like Jump and Splash, “a team of citizen volunteers seeking to fill recreational gaps, foster community togetherness, and enhance the quality of life for Montpelier,” have been diligently working toward the goal of “launching an indoor recreational facility that will be across roads for health and fitness for users of all ages and abilities, providing flexible and diverse programming that will be accessible, affordable, and sustainable.”
That’s a tall order indeed that engenders no small amount of debate and conjecture over what the final product should look like, much less how to get us there. “I do think it’s really critical to ask why are things successful or not successful, and what is the right size and what can sustain it,” says Gianna Peti to, a member of Jump and Splash, “What would the community be willing to support? What is the right scale? What is the possible watershed of people who will come to use it?”
Another part of the debate is over the public and private nature of he business. “I would still like to see, as the ideas progress, a private/public partnership, and that any facility that we look toward in the future is viewed as a regional service,” says Dona Bate. “It’s a huge financial burden for Montpelier to try to undertake on its own.”
Jump and Splash prefers a more community-based model but understands the need for private business to at least assist. “We want a community facility,” Petito explains, “We want something the community has ownership over, so it’s not a private business. But I think how that is operated in the end can look different. You can have different sections of the facility, including rooms that private businesses could rent out. Or you can have a private climbing gym and manages the climbing side of it.”
Another huge question is where the facility would even go. One option is to upgrade an existing facility, but as Bate points out, that creates another set of challenges. “How much do you put into a building that will never quite be right as far as heating or structural aspects? Plus, it would be expensive to maintain, let alone upgrade. Then you start looking at a new facility, but if we start looking at a new facility, I think it has to be very comprehensive.”
However altruistic, the comprehensive approach, which embraces all needs and several communities, may be working against progress, because it may be simply too much for one facility to encompass. “Does it really need to be one big facility?” Petite asks, “Maybe it’s a cluster of different facilities.”
The State of Fitness in Montpelier
Amy Leventhal, owner of downtown’s Studio Zenith, which runs one-on-one personal training, strength training flows, free weights, Ashtanga and Vinyasa yoga, and boot camps, has her eye on one empty space a few doors down. “If I had the money, I would totally take that over the space formerly occupied by One More Time and put machines in there but make it a cool atmosphere and not like a gym at all.”
Leventhal doesn’t see Planet Fitness as a threat, partly because she questions the limited benefits gyms of that nature bring to most members. “Most people I know who have gone to a gym, or had a gym membership, are unsuccessful. They’ll run on the treadmill, do a couple sets of weights, take a shower, and that’s their workout. That’s better than nothing, but it’s very unmotivating, and you force yourself to do it. It’s not something sustainable for life, and it doesn’t really produce what you are looking for goal-wise.”
Furthermore, not all reports of the gym’s performance are rosy. “A person who works at Planet Fitness came here yesterday to my class and said, ‘It’s weird, the vibe is off, and when people walk in they have no idea what to do. When they are lifting weights, it’s terrible. The form is terrible and they don’t know what they are doing.’”
Ultimately it brings more students to her, a sentiment echoed by Lindsay Armstrong, owner of Embodied across the street. “I think Planet Fitness helps businesses like mine in Montpelier because members of more expensive gyms will leave [those], pay the $10, and then they have money to spend on yoga. I’ve heard that from several students.”
However, with monthly memberships reaching $150, the cost of yoga and boutique studio classes can’t be ignored, and both Armstrong and Leventhal are conscious of the issue and trying to resolve it. “If I lived in a college town,” Armstrong, says, “the price would be a lot lower.” Like Armstrong, Leventhal is willing to negotiate the price. “For people who can’t afford it, I accommodate them with a sliding scale,” she explains.
Can a New Gym Survive ?
Nonetheless, the challenges of keeping a downtown fitness studio going are tremendous, just with the cost of insurance alone. “It’s a lot of work and not a huge profit margin,” notes Armstrong, “You have to love it and believe in it for it to work.” Thankfully, it’s a love shared by the students, who come for more than just sweating out calories. “Most people who come to this studio aren’t here for fitness but they are glad that is a piece of it.”
Nonetheless, the lack of good quality facilities, both indoor and outdoor, in Montpelier is something they’d like to address, even if it brings a bit of competition. “I feel like a small YMCA would be great for everybody, Leventhal muses, “a place where I could go, lift weights, take a cheaper fitness class, and I could bring my kid to the pool.” For Armstrong: “My son would be over the moon for a skate park; now we drive to Burlington.”
Armstrong is optimistic that a fitness club could succeed in Montpelier, “It’s probably a lot of investment, but if the money and energy were put in, and you built a nice facility and you treated clients and employees well, I think a fitness place in Montpelier would do just fine.