Monday, November 20, 2017
Business

DeWitt: Low price of gym memberships might cost Hernando YMCA

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The facilities at the new Planet Fitness on Spring Hill Drive are eye-popping, the prices even more so.

Lines of brand-new treadmills and elliptical trainers stretch from near the front door to the back end of the gym's vast, 23,000-square-foot chunk of the old Sweetbay Supermarket at Mariner Boulevard.

The row of 70-inch televisions would put to shame the collection at the most lavishly outfitted sports bar. The gym offers several duplicates of every imaginable weight machine in a big central room and side rooms stocked with box-jumping and stretching equipment.

The cost to access it all, 24 hours a day, is $10 per month, a price members can lock up in perpetuity and, as part of an opening "no commitment" deal, stop paying at any time. Another $9.99 per month allows the use of tanning beds and massage chairs.

No surprise, then, that less than a month after opening, Planet Fitness — a national chain with more than 1,200 outlets — had already attracted 6,000 members.

"It's all about volume," manager Paul Mancia said last week. "We're like the Walmart of gyms."

Mancia brought it up so I didn't have to — a name that is a byword for the broader implications of our spending decisions. Every choice we make to buy a car, a house or even a bargain-priced pair of jeans has an impact on the environment, or jobs or, in the case of Planet Fitness, the community.

In fact, the people in the back of an opening-day line that stretched around the block — "Like we were having a Black Friday sale," Mancia said — could almost have seen the institution their signup threatened: the Hernando County Family YMCA, a few hundred yards south on Mariner.

"It's having a big impact," said Donna Gosnell, a longtime Y volunteer and board member.

Though it's too early to say just how big that impact will be, use of the Y had been flat even before Planet Fitness opened, according to numbers provided by Eric Keaton, vice president of marketing for YMCA of the Suncoast.

And the bustle at Planet Fitness when I visited both places last Thursday afternoon contrasted with the pronounced lack of it at the Y — a half-filled parking lot and a handful of underoccupied workers behind the reception desk.

Which seemed a shame. The YMCA is not just a gym; it's a place, as the banner outside the entrance reminds people, where members "build more than muscle."

The membership fees — $46 a month for individuals, $79 for families, not including standard signup fees — support an organization that provides diabetes prevention, cancer awareness, youth sports programs and scholarships for families who can't afford the full fee.

And the experience there is just different from what you get at one of the increasingly common 24-hour-per-day gyms where playlist-cranking headphones are as obligatory as sneakers and conversations are as rare as shriveled biceps.

Workouts at the Y usually include a chat with the old guys gathered around the coffee machine and at least a few friendly words with fellow gym rats. It's hard for newcomers to remember how badly Spring Hill needed such a community hub when the Y opened in 1989 and how essential it has been in filling that role.

I'm biased because I'm the husband of a former chairwoman of the Hernando Y board, a father with a tons of good memories of Y swimming lessons and basketball games, a longtime member who quit only because my schedule no longer takes me anywhere near the Y.

But I recognize that even when considering the amenities at the Y, including a swimming pool and child care, it has to keep its prices competitive. And it has to do more to reach out to and welcome the public. The surly "no" from a desk worker when I asked to interview members there last week just about killed all of my good feelings for the place and supplied another sharp contrast to Mancia's engaging patter at Planet Fitness.

And I fully recognize the appeal and value of places like Planet Fitness. The last thing I want to do is make villains of an outfit that brings exercise opportunities within the price range of the group that, health statistics show, is most likely to need it — people who struggle economically.

This is just a reminder that the Y has done great things for Hernando for a lot of years and that your Planet Fitness membership might seem like a little less of a bargain if you factor in all of its costs.

     
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