With the closing of the Evanston health club LA Fitness in mid-April and changes that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a shift in the Evanston health-club climate.
The city’s Economic Development Manager, Paul Zalmezak, who spoke with the LA Fitness Club corporate office when the closing was announced, said the company had made the decision based on low sales of new memberships as well as the high cost of doing business in Evanston. He said the space vacated by the club is about 58,000 square feet and cost the club more than $2 million to rent each year. With a drop in membership numbers from around 5,000 to 3,500 the club was unable to cover its expenses.
“There were interesting efforts in the community to get the company to keep the Evanston location open,” said Zalemezak. “Alderman [Clare] Kelly spoke with the LA Fitness corporate office, asking them what it would take. Corporate decided not to do it.”
Zalmezak said that the loss of the health club was significant to many of those living in Evanston’s downtown. Silver Sneakers, an exercise program designed for older adults that is paid for by Medicare, was hosted in Evanston by LA Fitness. “We reached out to other gyms [about hosting the program], but some are too small to host Silver Sneakers and it’s not being offered at Evanston Athletic Club.”
Will Roberts, Customer Service manager at Evanston Athletic Club, 1723 Benson Ave., said their membership numbers had been increasing. “We’ve had a large uptick recently due to LA Fitness shutting down,” said Roberts. “Our business in general has increased by about 50% in terms of foot traffic, membership sales, inquiries.”
Izzy Libmann, owner of TruFit, a private personal training studio at 610 Davis St. in downtown Evanston, said that some of the trainers that lost their jobs at LA Fitness had come to work out of TruFit and that the studio’s offerings had changed in a number of ways.
“Everyone went online, doing training on Zoom, and that seems to be sticking for the time being. And we now have clients that live in different states. That will stay,” said Libmann. “We also discovered that we don’t need to work the split shifts we used to work before and after [9-5] work hours. It wasn’t a healthy way to run my business, but my clients started working from home and could take an hour at lunch.”
Libmann said that for trainers the new, post-COVID model allows for a healthier workload: “Trainers are much better off at TruFit than LA Fitness, trainers can set their own hours and rates, they train the way they see fit and they make more money.”
Libmann said that TruFit has not only weathered the pandemic and seen positive changes in her business model, but will open a new TruFit concept, TruFit Wellness Studios, just up the way on Davis Street. The new location will include physical therapy and massage therapy as well as nutrition workshops and demonstrations.
However, despite positive changes, Libmann said she recognizes that running a fitness business in downtown Evanston comes with challenges. “If I have a client that also wants to have an affordable gym membership the pickins are super slim,” she said. “I wish the city would make it easier to run one here.
“Property taxes are very high and it makes it very challenging to make ends meet and to pay employees what they are worth and keep services affordable. Makes me sad when I see studios and gyms close. There is no shortage of people who want to feel better and more mobile.”
Becky Slenk, Executive Director at the McGaw YMCA, said they had many new members that had previously been members at LA Fitness.
Speaking about the experience of weathering the pandemic, she said it helped her team focus on the importance of community and “defining health beyond traditional fitness metrics.” Slenk said the Y embraced the need to support McGaw’s members through the pandemic and the ongoing changes that were part of it.
“McGaw is so much more than just a gym,” she said. “We are not simply a place, but a purpose, driven by strengthening our Evanston community and serving as a place of belonging for all. The pandemic brought to light the importance of community and defining health beyond traditional physical fitness metrics.”