by Antonio Foster
Those forthcoming resolutions to get in better shape may have just gotten a little easier for South Seattle residents.
After more than two years of planning, and six months of heavy renovations, Planet Fitness officially opened in the Rainier Beach neighborhood last Thursday, making it the second in the city and first of the low-cost fitness chains to open in South Seattle.
The 25,000 square foot facility, offering a basic membership of only $10/month, occupies the remaining portion of the Saar’sMarketplace complex left vacant after the long-time grocer and anchor store moved out in October 2015, initially leaving only a Rite-Aid pharmacy and a beauty salon as tenants.
A Dollar Tree moved in May of 2016, taking up roughly a third of the original Saar’s grocery, leaving the space now occupied by Planet Fitness dormant for more than a year.
Residents debated on what should replace Saar’s, with some advocating for a Trader Joe’s. Chris Cavolo, the Principal of Planet Fitness Growth Partners (PFGP) the owners of the Rainier Beach location, knew after scouting the location it would be perfect for a Planet Fitness.
“Me and my partners walked this neighborhood after the site became available, and we absolutely knew this was our kind of neighborhood afterwards,” said Cavolo, who describes himself as a “blue collar guy from Baltimore.”
Cavolo, who along with PFGP leased the Saar’s complex from Greg Saars for a term of 10 years, says prior to their visit the group was on the fence about the purchase. They specialize in opening gyms in ethnically diverse, working-class areas few other gyms want to touch. Their visit assured them they would be sticking to that model with the Rainier Beach location.
He laughs now, as their concern was squashed almost as soon as they touched down in the neighborhood. The fitness center’s opening marks it as the ownership group’s 57th Planet Fitness location, and its sixth in the state of Washington.
Cavolo also saw the opportunity to fill a need, as a survey PFGP conducted found only 12 percent of people within a 10-mile radius of Rainier Beach belonged to a gym. “None of us come from money, so we know what it’s like to want nice things in your community that no one wants to invest in,” the entrepreneur said about the group’s interest in low-income areas.
PFGP’s first Planet Fitness, financed by the savings of Cavolo and his partners, was located in Baltimore in an area Cavolo says was known for gang violence. “When we opened in there people really appreciated it. I looked at it like we were taking care of our own,” he said.
A decade later PFGP has made Rainier Beach host to the largest Planet Fitness in the state.
As much adoration as Cavolo expressed for the area, the Rainier Beach Planet Fitness didn’t come cheap, with franchise fees, property cost, and renovations to convert an old grocery store into a top of the line gym meant a price tag of roughly $4 million.
Converting the old Saar’s building meant redoing the plumbing, gutting the old electrical system, and waterproofing the exterior. The group also invested in $1 million worth of new exercise equipment including stationary bikes, treadmills, weight machines, massage chairs, tanning booths, flat screen TVs, and free weights.
According to Cavolo, it was worth it to get a first-class operation in Rainier Beach.
“We want this to be like the community’s second home,” he said. “When they come in here it’s immaculately clean. The people here are friendly, and no one’s trying to upsell you on your membership.” He added PFGP’s Planet Fitness chains have also won franchise of the year several times.
In keeping with the community first approach, Cavolo said he’s cognizant of being a job-provider, not a “displacer.” Accordingly, all 30 of the Rainier Beach Planet Fitness’ employees come from the surrounding South Seattle area, including manager Natalie Jarmick, a Rainier Beach resident.
“Having Planet Fitness, a well-respected and highly positive establishment, on the corner of Rainier and Henderson is a blessing to the entire community. Seeing this come into the neighborhood I call home fills me with so much joy,” Jarmick said, adding that she hopes it’s an inspiration to neighbors.
Lance Randall, the Director of Economic Development for Southeast Effective Development (SEED), also focused on the ways the new gym could benefit the community. “When people heard Planet Fitness was moving in, there was a lot of conversation around whether or not the community should protest,” Randall explained, referring to a well-traveled rumor that the Planet Fitness would be moving in only to kick out taco bus Taqueria Costa Alegre.
The taco bus, which occupies a part of the previous Saar’s footprint, now the Planet Fitness parking lot, has been a mainstay of the area for more than 11 years, with Rainier Beach High School students regularly stopping there for lunch.
“I kind of said, ‘Let me talk to the owner first before we take any action,’” said Randall. His ensuing conversation with Cavolo revealed both shared a hometown of Baltimore, and that Cavolo wasn’t aware of the controversy. The dialogue led to the taco bus signing a 10-year extension to stay in its current location, donations to local non-profits, and the aforementioned jobs for community members.
“There’s no way we were going to move out the taco bus just so we can have a few extra parking spots,” said Cavolo. Randall sees Planet Fitness as a model for how businesses looking to move to South Seattle should engage with the community.
“This was a teachable moment for the organization and the community. Instead of taking action when we didn’t quite know what was going on, we said ‘Okay, what are you offering to our community?’” Randall explained. He added the business near Planet’s Fitness complex should also benefit from its presence.
Additionally, the new gym offers free memberships to law enforcement, will have a free personal trainer on staff, and also be open 24 hours a day Monday through Friday.
Planet Fitness will join 12-year-old Rainier Health and Fitness (RHF) and the Rainier Beach Community Center (which offers free usage of its small exercise room to adults 18 and up) as gyms in the immediate area.
While some locals were worried about the Rainier Beach franchise encroaching on those businesses, neither of the clubs seem too interested in competition. “We never come in looking to hurt the competition. We are big believers that there is a large pie out here and more than enough slices to go around,” said Cavolo, noting that each club has different appeals.
Alicia Haskins, Director of Rainier Health and Fitness, reflected Cavolo’s sentiments. “[RHF’s] aim is to see people in South Seattle at their healthiest self, providing a place for people to not only be healthy physically, but holistically,” she said. “This neighborhood will become healthier from more than just our presence. Community health will happen from all of us working together.”
Cavolo is looking forward to joining in that work. He’s already making plans to add an additional 5,000 square feet to the gym in anticipation of rapid growth in the next few months. “This is Rainier Beach’s gym, and we’re here to stay.”