As the mass media reminds us almost daily, staying fit (or even just getting fit in the first place) is on many people's minds. The risks of a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle are being taken more seriously, and that seriousness is being felt throughout the real estate market as developers and building administrators attempt to capitalize on homebuyers' interest in keeping in shape.
Planning a gym or fitness center in a new building is one thing; installing or seriously upgrading a gym in an existing building is another. There are both risks and rewards, and many factors which need to be taken into consideration before the first drops of sweat start to fall.
Before diving into a gym build-out or remodeling project, managers and boards need to be prepared.
First, “The condo or co-op needs to make sure they have a viable space,” says Bruce Gehrig, territory manager with Midwest Service Inc., a national fitness equipment sales and installation company. Secondly, they need to have at least a few clear ideas about what type of facility they're looking to create. “A lot of times, they don’t know exactly what they want to do,” he says, adding that aside from space issues, infrastructure issues like wiring and plumbing need to be taken into consideration, since most cardio equipment requires electricity.
Dusty Schlotfeldt of Fitness Experts in Chicago suggests having a dealer or manufacturer of fitness equipment come in and assess your available space. He adds that other issues, such as adequate ventilation and flooring need to be taken into consideration as well. If flooring already exists, the board has to decide whether to leave it in or put a completely new floor down. If the gym is on the ground floor or in a basement space, the existing floor may be fine—if it's on an upper floor, reinforcement may be necessary, and soundproofing will definitely be a concern.
Diane White, senior vice president of condominium management at The Habitat Company in Chicago, also adds that having an internal risk management professional or insurance representative review the plans would be helpful too.
“If you are planning to include a gym as a new amenity for your unit owners, that simple step could alleviate potential issues down the road," she says. "A risk assessor will look [at your proposal or plans] with a different perspective than a day-to-day operator might.”
The Cost of Cardio
Sometimes the space is there, the electrical supply is there, and the floor is strong enough to support a few thousand pounds of iron and equipment, but building community leaders lack the support they need from the rest of the building to put a health or fitness center in, says Gehrig. It's an expenditure, and residents and managers frequently don't care for that—particularly in an economy as dreary as this one.
According to Brian Fonseca of Professional Fitness Concepts, a seller of fitness equipment based in Joliet, the cost of putting a health or fitness center into a condo or co-op differs widely from building to building.
“Typically for a 300- to 400-unit building, fitness equipment alone can run about $80,000,” he says. But this can range fairly broadly, depending on what level of equipment is purchased—whether you get machines with our without video monitors, for example–and the other amenities you plan to offer.
Schlotfeldt agrees. For a small fitness center with a couple of treadmills and stationary bikes, for example, the cost could be as low as $25,000. For a full-service gym with several units of each machine, flatscreen TVs and a staff person, the cost could be upwards of $300,000.
Then there's the paperwork. While there are no specific licenses required to house a fitness center in a condo or co-op, the building must file for a Certificate of Occupancy to certify that the space allotted is suitable for its intended use, and that it complies with all the relevant building codes and regulations.
Additionally, the board needs to notify their insurance company that the fitness center is being added. Schlotfeldt says that all that is needed is general liability coverage up to around $2 million, but that some insurers send a representative to assess the plans and make any policy adjustments they feel are warranted. Gehrig adds that having free weights such as dumbells can drive up a building's premium since they can represent more liability in case of injuries.
The cost of building out and insuring a gym can be offset in a number of ways, say the pros. Some centers do opt to charge building residents a membership fee. Gehrig says the amount differs from building to building, and is largely determined by the size of the building and the amenities offered by the facility. A building with 400 units, for instance, can get away with charging $50 per month per member. Others don’t charge a dime.
Gehrig says that once all the paperwork is done and everything is agreed upon, constructing a fitness center can take only four to eight weeks—sometimes less. “It’s the board’s decision that usually holds up the process," he says. "They can take anywhere from six months to even a year sometimes to decide."
Paramount among building administrators' concerns is how to keep their gym or fitness center safe for all those who use it. While it's not mandatory to have on-site supervision in a co-op or condo fitness facility, having oversight can make users feel safer and more secure, which in turn will encourage them to visit the facility more often and get maximum benefit from it.
Wendy Sherman, regional account manager with Dallas-based Associations Insurance Agency, Inc. suggests acquiring a safety manual from a local gym or fitness center for guidance as a first step in creating your own customized gym user handbook.
According to Gehrig, many facilities utilize security cameras and monitors in lieu of live staff persons to keep an eye on what’s going on in the fitness center, but he stresses the importance of placing any such equipment in a way that isn't intrusive or intimidating, as people can get sensitive about being observed or recorded as they work out.
Gehrig also advises installing panic buttons in the fitness centers to have access to immediate contact should something go wrong. “A panic button is a life safety issue,” he says.
And speaking of life safety, Illinois law also requires that every fitness center—including those in condo and co-op buildings—have at least one automatic external defibrillator (AED) on the premises. Because AEDs have explicit directions printed on them, it's not necessary to have a trained professional on-site to use them. However, White says that you want to make sure all building staff members are trained in first-aid, CPR and the AED.
“Anything that the community can do to eliminate the possibility of negligence, the better off they’ll be in the long run,” adds Sherman.
Maintenance is Key
Getting a fitness center up and running is exciting, of course, but taking care of it over the long run is just as important.
“You need to be vocal, and have an agenda,” says Gehrig. “You need to have a strong maintenance program in place.”
According to White, the number of gym staff members needed and the hours they are to be on duty is dependent on the services provided, the size of the facility, operating hours, and what level of assistance may be provided for the residents (i.e. trainers, lifeguards, locker room attendants, etc.)
In addition, White says it's imperative that managers and building engineers have an open line of communication with users of the center. “Being receptive to suggestions from resident users as to what they would like to see in the facility as far as exercise equipment, audio/visual equipment or extras for the space is an important piece as well."
Gehrig says that that he doesn’t see a lot of condos or co-ops that use an outside manager to maintain health and fitness centers because of the prohibitive cost of such a move. However, he adds that a workable compromise might be to hire an outside consultant to make periodic visits to check on equipment, make minor adjustments, and see to it that everything is as it should be.
Schlotfeldt also cites the importance of vigilant attention to the equipment in any gym or fitness center. Most equipment comes with a warranty, and the manufacturer or installation company representative can give a reasonable expected useful life for it, but as with any building system, good maintenance is key.
“Sometimes, a motor for a cardio machine could cost up to $800 or $900. Belts can go as high as $500,” Gehrig says. “Then you have to also pay for labor and sometimes travel. That could be anywhere from $65-$95.”
A Selling Point
Fonseca suggests doing a semi-annual tuneup of all the equipment, including cleaning it, checking the wear and tear and replacing any broken parts.
Keeping things clean and running is also important.
“At [one of our buildings], we have staff that does light cleaning during the day and an overnight heavy cleaning crew that is outsourced,” White says. “Since ours is part of the general assessment for each owner, there is no membership fee separate from their assessments.”
Their budget to run the fitness center is approximately $330,000 per year in expenses, but at the end of the day, it’s just important that there is someone on call that can address any concerns.
“For us, having the proper vendors on speed dial for warranty or repair work is key,” White says.
While having a fitness center in a condo or co-op isn't an incidental expenditure and can require a lot of planning and negotiation, according to Gehrig, the pros outweigh the cons. “It helps sell units in buildings and brings up the value,” he says. “Potential buyers go to buildings with fitness centers.”
Bernadette Marciniak is a New Jersey-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator.
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