Macon Health Club hopes marketing, new programs can spur turnaround

One of the several displays at the Macon Health Club promoting the fitness center’s place in downtown’s history features a pair of old leather, lace-up boxing gloves.

The gloves are a nod to olden days, like when the center was started a century ago as a Christian boys club or later when it ran 1,000-members strong.

Lately, however, the club has been on the ropes and in real danger of closing. Since at least 2008, The Medical Center of Central Georgia publicly has considered shutting down the club, which has been recording annual loses of about $100,000 a year.

But recent changes point toward a possible turnaround, as a combination of cuts and additional programming could help the club break even or maybe even be in the black by year’s end, said Kevin Carter, director of the Medical Center’s wellness services.

“We’ve been meeting just to try to come up with some ways to stop the bleeding when it comes to stabilizing membership, and I think we’ve been successful doing that so far. We’ve actually picked up a few members the last few months.”

The club is currently operating at about a $15,000 loss to date this year, Carter said.

“It’s a mainstay downtown, and really we’re trying to find a way to keep it open, keep it viable for the membership downtown.”

Changes in the works

A big step toward getting out of the red was discontinuing linen service at the club, which Carter says will save $43,000 a year. Members now either bring their own towels or purchase them on site.

The club currently has about 475 members, after taking a sizable hit when Mercer opened its new University Center. The club’s advisory committee has partnered with NewTown Macon to launch a marketing campaign targeting the downtown area and promoting the Health Club as an “independent entity” from the hospital’s other fitness properties.

“We’ve always cross-pollinated and cross-marketed the Wellness Center and the Macon Health Club,” said Carter, “but really it’s a different market when you look at membership.”

The Health Club’s membership ratio is about 6 to 1, male to female. The Wellness Center is 6 to 4, female to male.

“A lot of membership at the Health Club is made up of downtown businessmen or members who have been members really since they were kids. A lot of them learned to swim at the Health Club when it was the Y,” said Carter.

Some of the programming changes, Carter said, is aimed at bringing in more female members. One of the biggest is bringing Gateway Fitness to the facility.

Gateway plans to move in later this month and will lease 3,000 square feet of open, hardwood-floored space.

“I think it’s going to be a good move for both of us,” said Angie Gibbons, Gateway Fitness owner and certified personal trainer. “I think we’re both hoping we can give each other clients.”

Gibbons will bring along two other certified personal trainers and a licensed massage therapist. They will offer individualized special training and small group training.

“Some are there to lose weight. Some are there to stay healthy,” said Gibbons. “Our clients range from 17 to close to 80. Everybody has different goals.”

Gateway plans to offer special rates for Health Club members, and Gibbons said several of her clients already have asked about joining the club.

“I really want to see it grow,” she said. “I think it’s a great place downtown. It’s just a great facility.”

‘A lot of great history’

The Macon Health Club opened in 1908 at the corner of First and Cherry streets as a YMCA, or Young Men’s Christian Association. Initially, construction cost $12,000, but it was soon expanded at a cost of $100,000.

The swimming pool, now heated, once was fed by the chilly waters from the underground spring at nearby Spring Street. Upstairs, a marble floor and an original “Y” doorknob are more remnants of the club’s rich history. Overlooking the open weight training area is a walking track that looks more like a NASCAR raceway than a fitness trail. Thirty laps will earn a walker, or runner, one mile.

The club also features two racquetball courts and full- and half-courts for basketball.

“There’s a lot of great history,” said Carter.

Bob Lewis, a Macon real estate broker, is a longtime member.

“I love it down there,” Lewis said. “It’s such an interesting part of downtown. A lot of good folks go down there, and a lot of new ones are going.”

The club has launched a fundraising campaign, and almost $7,500 has been contributed, which the advisory board has allocated to marketing. The club also plans to begin swimming lessons for special-needs children, which officials also believe will be a good marketing tool.

With an enhancement fee paid by members, the club has ordered new cardio equipment for the fitness floor. And the club has applied for what Carter described as a “large grant” for more new equipment and additional programming to recruit female members.

And in the fall, the club hopes to offer scuba diving instruction at the pool.

“We’re really trying to think out of the box of some things we can put in there to occupy some space — it’s such a big building — but also to create some additional revenue streams that we’ve not had before,” Carter said.

Basic membership costs $43 a month, but corporate, senior and student rates are available.

“Most people get some sort of discount,” Carter said.

There is room to grow. The men’s locker room has 1,000 lockers, with a steam room and sauna. The women’s has 250 lockers and a sauna.

“We had to retrofit it,” explained Carter. “In the beginning, this was all men.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.