Huge health club could rival CA's facilities

Life Time Fitness may open in Gateway area

May 30, 2004|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A health club slated to open in Columbia's Gateway Commerce Center that will rival the size of the Columbia Association gyms is causing concerns about the financial implications for the community's recreational facilities, a major source of income for the homeowners association.

Life Time Fitness, a growing health and fitness company that typically operates 150,000- square-foot facilities, has a contract to open a gym off Robert Fulton Drive late next year or in early 2006, said Dennis W. Miller, a Rouse Co. vice president and Columbia's general manager.

Life Time Fitness likely will be slightly larger than the 110,000- square-foot Supreme Sports Club, the Columbia Association gym that will be closest to the new facility.

"They're like the Wal-Mart of fitness centers," said Tom O'Connor, who represents Dorsey's Search on the Columbia Council. "A 100,000-square-foot gym is a gorilla, and it's dropping right in the middle of Columbia."

The company's 24-hour facilities usually include two full-size gyms, two indoor pools, racquetball and squash courts, rock-climbing walls, a spa, wooden lockers and a child care center, said Jason Thunstrom, a spokesman for the company, which is based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Outside, the centers often offer outdoor pools and tennis or volleyball courts.

"From the second you drive up, you see something that far more resembles one of those health resort spas that maybe you take a week off work and go to in Arizona," Thunstrom said. He said it is too early to confirm that a gym will open in Columbia.

The company has 33 fitness centers in Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. Another five facilities are scheduled to open this year.

Miller said he does not anticipate Life Time Fitness will compete with Columbia Association facilities and said the primary customers are likely to be employees from the business park.

"I believe the facilities have the ability to be very complementary," he said. "The Gateway office area does not have the close proximity to fitness facilities, and this will be clearly the closest fitness facility to them."

But O'Connor said he expects Life Time Fitness to be a big competitor. He predicted that once it opens, the Columbia Association's sports income will temporarily fall but eventually balance out. He says he believes the association's facilities will continue to attract families.

"People who just want to go and exercise and know what they're doing and don't need a lot of help, that's the kind of market [Life Time Fitness is] looking at," he said. "All the other things we provide in the association. I think that will make a difference. I still think we'll give more value."

The recreational facilities are the cornerstone of the association's amenities. The association manages three gyms - in River Hill, Harper's Choice and Owen Brown - as well as 23 outdoor pools, two tennis clubs and two golf courses.

Facility memberships are among the top revenue producers for the nonprofit organization. For fiscal 2005, the Columbia Association expects to take in about $15 million from club memberships.

Spokeswoman Keisha Reynolds said the Columbia Association has responded to competing health clubs by adjusting its services. For instance, when a spa opened near Supreme Sports Club in the early 1990s, the association opened a women's gym in the club. The spa has since closed.

"We always, over the last 37 years, have been able to provide first-class sport and fitness facilities that have always been as good or better than other facilities of its kind in the market place," she said.

Valerie Alexander, who heads the association's sport and fitness advisory committee, said she has thought that the Gateway area would be an untapped market for the Columbia Association to build a gym, noting a strong demand for aerobics classes and increasing traffic in the area that would encourage customers to use the facilities.

"If I were a working person that gets off at 4:30 or 5, and I'm in that traffic, it would be just great to stay in that area, work out and leave late," she said.

Barbara Russell, who represents Oakland Mills on the Columbia Council, said one of her goals this year is to improve the association's facilities and programs. She said she expects Life Time Fitness will be so large that it will be impersonal.

"They're a franchise, and we are a homegrown product, and so the products are different," she said. "And just like in any market, we'll have to make our product the best it can be."

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