How members of Belleville Fitness Center saved their building for just $1
Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
BELLEVILLE — Debbie Thacker of O’Fallon had a wide choice of health clubs near her home but the one she decided to join about seven years ago was in Belleville.
Her choice was the Belleville Health and Sports Center operated by Memorial Hospital.
Thacker and hundreds of the members are fiercely loyal to the club and were upset when the hospital wanted to close the center in 2019 and sell it. But the club members rallied to form a nonprofit group to operate the center and Memorial Hospital agreed to lease them the building at 1001 S. 74th St. for $1 a month for over a year.
This past week, the club’s leaders had a ceremony to thank hospital officials for deciding to “sell” the center to them for the grand sum of $1.
Memorial Hospital President Mike McManus said the hospital was pleased to make the donation, which included the building, land and all of the exercise equipment. The deed was transferred to the members on July 31.
“We all stayed together, we all hung together, us and them,” McManus said of the talks hospital officials had with the fitness center leaders.
“When they really figured out that yes, this can be viable, we can make it work, we were happy to donate the assets.”
Memorial Hospital officials “agonized” over the decision to sell the center for years but announced in 2019 that it wanted to sell the center because it was not part of their “core business as a hospital,” McManus said.
“These folks are very invested in it and invested in its success,” he said. “That’s the way it should be.”
Pat Mathis, a Belleville attorney and a member of the club’s board of directors, said the members could not have continued to operate the club without Memorial Hospital’s assistance with the subsidized lease and subsequent building donation.
“We knew early on that we could never afford to buy the building,” Mathis said.
But when he got the message that Memorial Hospital would donate the site “we were elated,” Mathis said with a laugh.
“I think I called Marsha (Hohe) first and said, ‘You won’t believe it but the hospital agreed to give us the building,’” he said.
Hohe is the club’s manager and only full-time employee. The center also has 28 part-time employees.
“I think we’re stronger now than we’ve ever been,” said Hohe, who first briefly worked at the center when she was a teenager. She returned to the club about 20 years ago as an instructor and personal trainer and then was hired in June to be the manager.
“I’m really excited about this place,” she said.
Sense of community
For members like Thacker, the club is more than just a good place to workout.
“I love the camaraderie. That’s what was hard about us closing. ... It’s not just a gym, a place to workout, because there’s lots of those,” she said. “But we know each other here and we know each other by name and we support each other and encourage each other and it’s a feeling of community.”
Mathis echoed Thacker’s thoughts.
“We always kind of perceive this as kind of a community center with a health aspect to it,” he said. “The club is important for the members and the club is important for the west end Belleville community.
“If it closed, a lot of members would suffer, not just physical health but social health and mental health and psychological health.”
Health club’s outlook
Mathis said Memorial Hospital paid the utilities, taxes and repairs while the club members rented the building but now the members are responsible for those costs.
The group plans to build a reserve fund for building repairs such as when the roof needs to be fixed or the air conditioning system breaks down. Donations to the club have ranged from $10 to $5,000 and a load of sanitizing wipes from the Signal Hill Fire Department.
Future programming possibilities at the club may include new support groups as well as coordinating with Memorial Hospital for patients in rehab.
Barbara Bahr of Belleville joined the club 15 years ago and she’s one of the seven members on the board of directors.
Bahr enjoys the “nice atmosphere” at the center and is looking for more people to join.
“We still got a ways to go,” she said.
Fitness center classes and members
The Belleville Health and Sports Center offers more than 50 classes each week in a wide variety of group exercises.
Cardio circuit, cycling, Pilates, yoga, Silver Sneakers, Rock Steady, judo, karate, tae kwon do, Zumba, tai chi and boxing conditioning are some of the classes offered.
The building first opened as a racquetball club and Memorial Hospital took it over in 1986.
You can still play racquetball at the center but the sport is not as popular as it was in the 1970s and ’80s. Pickleball is now played at the club.
The center has a large room full of weight machines, another room with free weights and a cardio room that includes treadmills, ellipticals, recumbent bikes and stair machines. One room is dedicated to Pilates training and another for yoga.
Hohe said the center has about 1,000 members. Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic has hampered recruitment since older people are often concerned about the spread of the disease, Mathis said. Also, the club had to close for about three months last year because of the coronavirus guidelines.
Former members of the nearby Kings Point club that recently closed are eligible for a free 30-day membership and Hohe said about 60 people have taken advantage of this offer.
A single membership costs $50 a month. Those 62 years old and up and first responders are charged $45. Most of the classes are included in this fee but there are some classes that charge extra.
You don’t have to be a member for yoga classes and massage therapy.
Mike Koziatek is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.