With the closure of Evanston Health Club LA Fitness in mid-April and the changes that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate at Evanston Health Club has changed.
The city’s economic development manager, Paul Zalmezak, who spoke with LA Fitness Club corporate headquarters when the closure was announced, said the company made the decision due to 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 approximately 58,000 square feet and costs the club more than $2 million in rent each year. With a decline in membership from around 5,000 to 3,500, the association was unable to cover its expenses.
“There have been interesting community efforts to get the company to keep the Evanston site open,” Zalemezak said. “Alderman [Clare] Kelly spoke to LA Fitness’ corporate headquarters and asked what would be needed. Corporate has decided not to do it.”
Zalmezak said the loss of the gym is meaningful to many of Evanston’s downtown residents. Silver Sneakers, an exercise program for older adults paid for by Medicare, was hosted by LA Fitness in Evanston. “We reached out to other gyms [about hosting the program]but some are too small to accommodate Silver Sneakers and it is not offered at Evanston Athletic Club.”
Will Roberts, customer service manager at Evanston Athletic Club, 1723 Benson Ave., said membership has increased. “We’ve had a big surge lately due to the closure of LA Fitness,” Roberts said. “Our business in general is up about 50% in terms of walk-ins, membership sales and inquiries.”
Izzy Libmann, owner of TruFit, a private personal training studio at 610 Davis St. in downtown Evanston, said that some of the trainers who lost their jobs at LA Fitness came to train from TruFit and that the studio’s offering has changed a number of ways.
“Everyone went online and did training on Zoom and that seems to be the way to go for now. And we now have customers who live in different states. That will remain,” said Libmann. “We also found that we no longer have to work in split shifts that we used to do before and after [9-5] working hours. It wasn’t a healthy way of running my business, but my clients started working from home and were able to take an hour for lunch.”
Libmann said the new post-COVID model for trainers allows for a healthier workload: “Trainers are much better off at TruFit than they are at LA Fitness, trainers can set their own hours and rates, they train how they see fit , and they make more money.”
Libmann said that not only has TruFit weathered the pandemic and seen positive changes in their business model, but they will also be opening a new TruFit concept, TruFit Wellness Studios, just around the corner on Davis Street. The new location includes physical therapy and massage therapy, as well as nutrition workshops and demonstrations.
Despite positive changes, Libmann said she recognizes that running a fitness business in downtown Evanston comes with challenges. “When I have a client that also wants 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 difficult to make ends meet and pay employees what they are worth and keep the services affordable. Makes me sad when I see studios and gyms closing. There are many people who want to feel better and more mobile.”
McGaw YMCA executive director Becky Slenk said they have many new members who were previously members of LA Fitness.
Speaking about the experience of weathering the pandemic, she said it helped her team focus on the importance of community and “define health beyond traditional fitness metrics.” Slenk said the Y welcomes the need to support McGaw’s members during the pandemic and the ongoing changes it brings.
“McGaw is so much more than just a gym,” she said. “We are not just a place, we are a purpose driven by strengthening our Evanston community and serving as a place of belonging for all. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community and defining health beyond traditional physical fitness metrics.”