February 28, 2013

Despite Setbacks, Students Seek to Create Collegetown Gym

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Living together above 401 College Ave. –– the space formerly occupied by Collegetown Pizza –– this past summer, Felix Tabary ’14 and Omar Nijem ’13 discovered a new business they could start right in their own building: a gym.

“We were annoyed that we had to walk or drive to Helen Newman, because during the summer, everyone lives in Collegetown,” Tabary said. “We realized there was a huge vacancy below where we were living. We got really excited.”

Tabary and Nijem spoke to the lot’s owner, George Avramis, in early August about creating a gym in the space. Avramis was enthusiastic, Tabary said, and they began negotiations with him about rent. Around Orientation Week 2012, they began asking Ithaca banks for loans for their project, and by September, they had contacted an architect to help remodel the space with their newest partner, Tess Nelson ’13.

However, by mid-October, the students realized they would not be able to meet their financial goals. The rent for the 401 College Ave. space would have cost $7,500 per month, Tabary said.

“With [the costs of our education], we realized we didn’t have that capital,” Nelson said.

They instead looked to Cornell Fitness Centers, but learned that they could not open a Cornell gym off-campus because CFC would lose its tax-exempt status that it maintains as an on-campus facility. The team then turned to local franchises, including Island Fitness. However, Tabary said, “it’s around then that the landlord told us he couldn’t wait around forever.”

Tabary had previously worked out a deadline of Oct. 31 for the group to provide Avramis with proof that they had enough funds to cover the first two months of rent and the security deposit and insurance.

“I held out for [Tabary] for a while,” Avramis said. “I gave him quite a few months; I forget how many, three, four, might have been six [months]. I really thought he was going to do it, get his business plan together, open the gym.”

After Tabary and Nelson missed the deadline, the future prospects of the gym became uncertain.

“Very little was said,” Nelson said. “[Avramis] was kind of wondering — it was like, he didn’t know if we were going to do it, we didn’t know if he’d kicked us out. We’ve kind of kept hope, since [the space] hasn’t moved an inch.”

The students did not give up on their idea. They said they hoped to meet with the Collegetown Neighborhood Council to get advice on their project and were still in touch with other gyms. In October, they decided to shift from a for-profit business to a not-for-profit business, according to Tabary.

“Where the project shifted for us was when we realized that we weren’t going to get backing from people if our only mission was to make money,” Tabary said.

After that point, his and Nijem’s visions for the gym began to diverge, and Nijem left the team in mid-October, Tabary said.

According to Tabary, Nelson was more focused on promoting fitness in Collegetown than on making a profit, and working with her provided a fresh perspective on her goals for the project.

Nelson envisioned a gym that met more of students’ social needs and included things such as a post-prelim “power hour” classes, she said, and she was concerned with women’s safety walking across campus to the gym late at night. That was when something “clicked,” Tabary said.

“That’s when we realized the opportunity lies in promoting fitness, helping the community, not making a bunch of money off students in Collegetown,” he said.

Now, Tabary and Nelson are seeking out local fitness centers to franchise the gym and trying to get people who have a business model already formed, Nelson said. But the future of the gym is remains unclear, Tabary said.

“To be totally honest, I don’t think I’m going to see this gym above the ground before I graduate,” he said. “But if I can turn this into some sort of club and get five or six entrepreneurs on it, it has every chance to succeed. My dream is to see a gym in Collegetown before I graduate so that fellow Collegetown residents can continue to live a healthy lifestyle.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler