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Area fitness centers feel economic pinch

COVINGTON -- Area fitness clubs are seeing their membership rolls increase in the wake of the sudden closing of the Covington Athletic Club and Fitness Center, but managers of those clubs are not relishing the circumstances.

"We're certainly sorry to see any business go out of business in Newton County, and we're not by any means glad to see the Covington Athletic Club go out of business," said Louly Hay-Kapp, associate executive director of the Covington Family YMCA.

Even so, she said, a number of former members of the Covington Athletic Club have inquired about membership at the YMCA.

"We certainly welcome anyone wanting to join the Y. There have been quite a few people who have joined and many who have asked to look around and are using our facility as our guests to see if we are a match for them," Hay-Kapp said.

And even with the jump in business, she said the YMCA doesn't plan to cap the number of new members who can join.

"We have also been impacted by economic downturn and we can accommodate quite a few members," Hay-Kapp said.

With the closing of the Covington Athletic Club, Gold's Gym on Salem Road in Conyers is now the only club in Rockdale and Newton counties that offers the SilverSneakers Fitness Program for older adults. Senior citizens participating in Medicare health plans or Medicare Supplement carriers can receive a free basic membership at participating fitness centers.

"The biggest impact for us is that the only other place with SilverSneakers was Covington (Athletic Club), so our SilverSneakers Program is expanding," said Joe Cunningham, who, along with his wife, Kristy, owns Gold's Gym in Conyers. "As I'm looking out here right now, there are probably 15 people at our front counter who are over the age of 60."

But echoing the sentiments of Hay-Kapp, Cunningham expressed heartfelt concern for Covington Athletic Club owner Phil Johnson.

"My heart hurts for Phil, and not just because of the business side, but his personal losses as well," Cunningham said.

The Covington Athletic Club closed Friday after having been in operation for 22 years. Johnson purchased it about eight years ago and completed a total renovation of the facility. However, business had been declining since 2004 and ultimately the gym fell victim to the rocky economy.

And that's something all fitness facility owners can relate to.

"We have seen a bump in our membership since (the Covington Athletic Club) closed, but when I first heard the news, my heart went out to them," said Debbie Hawkins, manager of Snap Fitness 24/7 on U.S. Highway 278 in Covington.

"Last year was a major strain on everybody, and not just fitness clubs, but every business felt the effect of the economy," she said. "When the economy made a downturn, people had to make a choice, do they keep their lights on or do they walk on the treadmill. Of course, many had to keep the lights on."

Cunningham said that while Gold's Gym in Conyers is weathering the financial storm, it hasn't been easy. He said if it weren't for the willingness of Gold's financial backers like Billy Pruitt and their landlord, Charlie Tuller, to negotiate leases, rent rates and loans, things would be much tougher at the gym.

"If you don't have people in the community willing to do that for you, you'd have a lot more closings," Cunningham said, pointing out that a friend and owner of a Gold's Gym franchise in Lilburn had to close his doors recently because he could not negotiate affordable rent from his landlord.

Hawkins of Snap Fitness said the good news is she believes society's mindset about physical fitness is beginning to change.

"People are realizing they have to make health a lifestyle, and it's not just a luxury or social networking opportunity," she said.

Cunningham agreed.

"People are seeing that working out is a stress reliever," he said. "In addition to the tangible benefits, people are working out to stay healthier."

Cunningham said that the average customer at Gold's Gym in Conyers is concerned less about changing his body style than about improving his total health and keeping his weight where it needs to be.

"People who understand the value of fitness find a way to make it work, and we work with people who have fallen on difficult times, freezing their account and letting them continue to work out for a time," he said. "It's not open-ended, of course, but we don't tell them they can't work out just because they can't pay us because their focus is on health and fitness."