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Local fitness centers feel threatened by proposal
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Patty Sweetman works out in the pool Wednesday during an aquatic fitness class at the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
To Michael Graham, deputy director of Gainesville’s Parks and Recreation Department, converting an unused meeting room into a fitness center at the Frances Meadows Aquatics Center makes sense.

Department officials hope to make the year-old complex a “fitness destination.” The center boasts a year of successful aerobics programs, in the pool and out, and attendees have asked for more.

“We have been asked by many citizens about fitness equipment, ‘why don’t you have it? ... I would expect you would have it.’ Even from the very beginning, we were getting that,” Graham said.

Since the economic recession has reduced revenues for all city departments, Parks and Recreation officials decided to redirect cash marked for designing future parks to upgrade current facilities instead. A proposal from the department, initially approved Tuesday by the City Council, would fill a seldom-used 4,400 square-foot meeting room with approximately $310,000 worth of LifeFitness brand fitness equipment.

The proposal also outlines plans to purchase more chairs for the center’s outdoor Splash Zone, new carpet for the Civic Center and updated playgrounds at other city parks.

But the fitness center part of the proposal has sparked opposition from representatives of private fitness centers who feel the agency is creating unfair competition and could hurt their businesses. Representatives from three fitness centers, Georgia Mountains YMCA, Fitness Forum and Bodyplex in Gainesville, asked the City Council on Tuesday not to move forward with the fitness plan at the aquatics center.

Gainesville’s Fitness Forum has lost customers since the Meadows center opened in 2008, sales manager Patrick Chamberlain said.

“I wouldn’t say that ... our business has been hurt by it, but you know, we have noticed that people are there instead of here now,” he said.

About 65 percent of Fitness Forum’s 23,000 square feet of space in the Publix shopping center on Thompson Bridge Road is a dedicated fitness facility, Chamberlain said. The center also has an indoor lap pool, tanning beds, a sauna and a steam room.

Graham said the city’s proposed 4,400 square feet of fitness equipment pales in comparison.

“We don’t feel like that this is competition with any of those private providers out there,” Graham said. “We think what we’re trying to do is just meet the needs of those members and citizens that have come to this facility and want to be part of that. It’s a 4,400-square-foot fitness center, which can’t compare to 26,000 square feet that offers all these different types of amenities that comes with full-fledged fitness center.”

But space is not the issue, Chamberlain said.

“The issue is that they already have an aerobics program that is not being factored into that square footage, so they’re already offering a lot of things to people that are fitness-minded, and just to add something else is another blow just to the fitness industry in Gainesville,” Chamberlain said.

“... It’s a big deal any time government competes with private enterprise with taxpayer money,” Chamberlain said.

“... I just think it’s a misuse of government funds.”

But Graham counters that many community centers now built by local governments include small fitness centers. Graham points to Hall County’s East Hall Community Center and plans for the future Cool Springs park.

“All have small fitness centers involved in those,” Graham said.

Graham said adding fitness equipment at the Meadows center will fill a need when residents need city services most. A proposal drafted for the City Council says the city’s fitness center will give residents access to affordable fitness in tough times.

“As a result of an economic downturn, local residents will find it more difficult to invest in costly and long-term memberships to health clubs and fitness centers,” the proposal reads. “They will look for more affordable and well-rounded options for themselves and their families.”

But Chamberlain said he is not sure there is such a need.

“Three health clubs in Gainesville have shut down in the last year and a half,” Chamberlain said. “My question is, if there was this great need for a workout facility, why did those clubs close down?”

The majority of the City Council voted to approve the Parks and Recreation department’s proposal Tuesday.

Representatives from the YMCA and Bodyplex did not return calls seeking comment.

Fitness Forum does not plan to take the issue any further, Chamberlain said.

“We sort of fell on deaf ears (Tuesday) night, so I don’t foresee us taking a lot of action in the way of trying to fight it. Once they’ve decided what they’re going to do, they tend to do it,” Chamberlain said. “So we’re not going to spend our time fighting battles that we can’t win.”
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