Health club pumping up role in area

Wellness: The owner of Big Vanilla hopes expansion will help in the fitness center's community activities.


Before he bought Big Vanilla Athletic Club - and long before he sought to double the Arnold business' size - owner Larry Ray was a pin jockey there, repositioning the pins that hold weights on the exercise machines, creating training programs for members and running the front desk.

That was in the late 1970s, shortly after the fitness center and tennis club opened off Ritchie Highway. Now Ray runs the place, with plans for a $4 million, 46,000-square-foot expansion that he hopes will transform Big Vanilla from a popular Annapolis-area health club into a community center of sorts.

"The needs, the desires, the passions of our customers change," said Ray, who is awaiting zoning approval to clear the way for his expansion, perhaps within a year. "If we don't grow, if we don't evolve, then someone else is going to do it."

With more than 5,000 members, at least 15 percent of them from Annapolis, Big Vanilla is easily the largest health club in the Broadneck area. It includes standard health club equipment, including free weights and weight machines, treadmills and an aerobic room.

The club also includes up-to-date features such as a circuit training room that keeps patrons moving along through their exercise regimen; exercise bicycles with Internet displays; and amenities such as the staffs wiping down the equipment each half-hour.

"Everyone in this area knows Big Vanilla. It's an outstanding health club," said Ryan Frantz, 17, a senior at Severn School who has been going to the club with his father for about 10 years. The facility and the staff here are unparalleled."

Ray has gone out of his way to establlsh his club as more than just a commercial presence in the community.

The Green Hornets, the local youth sports league, which includes Ray on its board of directors, holds its walk-up registration at the club about three times a year. The Red Cross held a blood drive on the club's tennis courts afew weeks ago.

A mobile rock-climbing wall provided by Big Vanilla appears at charity events, where money raised from each $5 climb goes directly to community service organizations such as Camp Blaze, which also has Ray on its board. And the sign outside the health club includes an electric banner devoted entirely to community events.

"Big Vanilla plays a large role in our community," said Sage Mumma, president of the Arnold Preservation Council. "[Larry Ray] has just been a good neighbor."

Big Vanilla opened in 1976 in a large, vanilla-colored barn and the original logo, an ice cream cone with a tennis ball sitting in a cone-shaped letter I.

Ray worked at the club for four years while studying business at the neighboring community college. He left Big Vanilla about 1980 to start his own club, National Fitness, in Pasadena, and a few years later built another, a corporate gym on Dorsey Road near Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

At the same time, he was drawn back to Big Vanilla and purchased the fitness portion of the business, paying rent for land to the company that still owned the tennis club.

"And then I decided that I really didn't want to do all these clubs," Ray said. "I wanted to do larger, community-oriented sports, wellness and recreation centers."

He sold the Dorsey Road Club in 1993, the Pasadena club in 1995. In 1998, he became the sole owner of Big Vanilla. This year, he was named Maryland Small Business Person of the Year by the Maryland Small Business Association.

In planning for expansion, Ray envisions a center with community-oriented features such as a computer lab where the elderly could take classes, a place where students could meet tutors and a meeting room free for use by nonprofits. Plans also call for a pool and space for a women-only workout area, along with improved gym facilities.

"We want to create a facility where the whole family can go," Ray said, adding that the most common excuses people offer for not working out are lack of time and a need to supervise children. "We want the wellness aspect of the Big Vanilla to be the primary aspect. (but] we want to be the hub for a lot of programs, not just wellness."

Ray has his eye on projects beyond Big Vanilla, including a similar facility, RiverClub, in the Pasadena area, which he hopes to open in the next few years. He is looking for property in Annapolis and western Anne Arundel County to perhaps build facilities there.

And he is a supporter of plans to build a portion of Broadneck Hiker/Biker Trail near the entrance to his club's parking lot. The trail would become part of the proposed American Discovery Trail connecting the country from Delaware to California, and would also attach to the Baltimore and Annapolis Trail.

"I want to make this a cool place," Ray said, "Even if you don't work out, I want you to walk out of there going, 'Wow! That was so cool.'

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