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'Should government be in the fitness game?': Small gyms struggle to keep up with city fitness centers

Shaila Cunningham, owner of YogaHotDish, demonstrates a revolved hand-to-foot pose as she teaches yoga outside the North Oaks Rec Center Wednesday, March 27, 2019. "I call it long-life yoga for longevity class," she said. "It's deliberately not called 'senior' or 'gentle' yoga. It's really neither." Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Mary Williams Jasicki, foreground left, teaches Aqua Dance Jam at the Shoreview Community Center on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

A barefoot yoga teacher recently convened her first outdoor class of spring.

“Roll over on your bellies,” Shaila Cunningham said to the 12 women on the basketball court.

“You should be feeling some heat from your Hara,” she said, referring to an abdominal energy field.

She didn’t tell them she is feeling the heat herself, as a small-business owner. She has been forced to compete with Shoreview’s $25 million fitness center nearby, with 19 yoga classes a week — all of them cheaper than hers.

“They are a competitor, for sure,” said Cunningham, who owns YogaHotDish. “Should government be in the fitness game? It makes you wonder if this is the best use of tax dollars.”

Dozens of businesses like hers say they are being pinched by competition from cities when it comes to fitness.

Examples abound in the Twin Cities area: Shoreview’s mega-center hosts 78 classes a week, St. Paul has 26 recreation centers and Cottage Grove is considering a new city-owned center.

City officials counter that they are not competing with businesses — just providing fitness for all residents, regardless of ability to pay.

Gayle Winegar disagrees.

“This is not a level playing field,” said Winegar, owner of SweatShop Health Club in St. Paul.

Her taxes pay for St. Paul’s recreational centers, which now have classes like hers — at a lower price. Worse, she said, are YMCAs in suburbs like Edina and Woodbury, which seem like a long way from the low-income youth that YMCAs are supposed to help.

The small-business owners ask: If cities would never operate a supermarket or movie theater, why open fitness centers?

“This is a conversation occurring across the nation,” said Kevin Roth, spokesman for the National Recreation and Park Association, which tracks publicly owned fitness facilities.

‘Is there a public need?’

Good-government advocates say government should avoid competing with businesses that support government with taxes.

“You have to ask: Is there a public need? And are there any businesses already meeting that need?” said Mark Haveman, director of the Minnesota Center for Fiscal Excellence.

For cities, public needs include water, streets and sewer lines.

“I have a tough time saying that exercise complexes qualify,” Haveman said.

He warns of “mission creep” — when a group starts with a legitimate mission that slowly broadens into other areas.

“You have to start asking about that when they want to run businesses like liquor stores or broadband businesses,” Haveman said.

Officials of cities and YMCAs say they don’t compete with businesses — at least, not intentionally. Rather, they say, their mission is to guarantee access to fitness for low-income residents.

Officials in the suburbs also cite a second mission — creation of a citywide gathering place, a city center they have never had.

“We don’t have a downtown like White Bear Lake or Stillwater,” said Shoreview city manager Terry Schwerm. Shoreview created one, weaving fitness facilities into a complex with a library and City Hall.

Pilates and yoga

The SweatShop’s Winegar said that St. Paul’s Linwood Recreation Center used to be a warming house and hockey rink — which didn’t compete with anyone.

“Now they have pilates and yoga,” she said. “I have people dropping out of my kettle-bell classes to save two or three bucks there.”

In fact, out of the Shoreview Center’s 78 classes per week, 50 overlap classes available within 2.5 miles, including yoga, kettle-bell, pilates and aquatic classes.

Ken Graack said he feels the sting of competition from the Maplewood Community Center.

“When cities promote these programs, it makes it hard for small business to thrive,” said Graack, owner of the American Strength Training Center.

City and YMCA officials say they couldn’t be putting anyone out of business, because the number of privately owned fitness centers is increasing.

“There is room for all of us,” said Shoreview’s Schwerm.

But fitness managers say there would be even more business without government competition.

“I would never open my business because of that competition. You couldn’t survive,” said Sarah Louismet, owner of Shift Fitness in Maplewood. Because of government competition, she said, she rents space rather than opening her own studio.

Cottage Grove officials are sensitive to the debate.

A current series of meetings addresses the question: Would it be better to build a city-center fitness facility, or let private businesses fill that need?

A gathering place

City administrator Jennifer Levitt said competition should be avoided.

Indeed, fitness might be almost an afterthought in a new Cottage Grove facility. If the primary purpose is to create a gathering place, “Fitness may be a component, but it is not the driver,” Levitt said.

It may be possible to build a city center without exercise facilities.

“How can we get a central meeting place? Maybe the arts and theater,” Levitt said.

Yoga teacher Cunningham said expensive city centers aren’t needed to promote a sense of community.

On a balmy end-of-winter day in March, snowbanks flanked a basketball court in North Oaks where women mingled before their yoga class.

Cunningham tried to get the students into a line, but the friends wanted to talk with each other instead.

“People talk about building community,” Cunningham said with a sigh, as they yakked away. “Well, I have too much community.”