Blog: Welcome to Our World, Whining Ys

A fitness facility in Missouri is protesting the construction of a new community center that will duplicate its services and hurt its business.

A chain of clubs in Virginia was able to successfully squash the construction of a public pool that would have cut into the business at one of its facilities.

To these brothers-in-arms we say, good for you. Fight the good fight. Operating a fitness facility is tough enough and public money can surely be spent more wisely than in the duplication of services that existing health clubs already provide. Whether it's taxpayer money being used to finance these facilities or not-for-profit fitness centers exploiting their tax-exempt status to expand, commercial health clubs ask simply that the playing field be level.

Hah! Gotcha! Both these whiners about unfair competition are not-for-profit Ys that have enjoyed using their tax-exempt status to expand their health club offerings.

The Ozarks Regional Y, which has seven locations, is protesting the local park board's plans to build a new community center in close proximity to one of its locations. The Y argues that this is a waste of taxpayer dollars because the community center would duplicate services offered by the Y.

The club in Virginia that successfully challenged the construction of a public pool seems to be the Y's poster child in the never-ending battle with for-profit health clubs. Its facility in Norfolk is described as having one room for day care and six floors for fitness. We're sure there are lots of underprivileged kids in that daycare space, given that this Y has a monthly rate that is higher than those of surrounding gyms. (The Y "offers more" so it charges more, they say.) And while, like all Ys, this organization touts its scholarship program for residents who can't afford the dues, we didn't come away thinking we had just read about a charitable organization…because we hadn't. What charitable organization has a chairman who says, "We don't see ourselves as having any competition"? Last we checked, charities typically don't bash each other. So, if he's not referring to other charitable organizations, who in the world isn't his competition? Not (gasp!) commercial health clubs.

In our view, the Y of South Hampton Roads is a for-profit health club chain masquerading as a charitable organization. No, allow us to restate that so that we are clear about our beef with this Y and every Y: The health club operation of the South Hampton Roads Y is a for-profit business. The services that make up the rest of their business - youth services, senior services - may well be outstanding charitable endeavors that are necessary and appreciated in their communities. But the majority of their members join in order to work out, just as they could be doing at any other gym, and the presence of these fitness-seeking consumers has nothing to do with the charitable functions provided by the rest of the operation.

If the Y operated its gyms as a for-profit division while maintaining its charitable operation as a not-for-profit, then this whole conversation would be unnecessary. Health club facilities could compete on an even playing field. But when Y's get donated land, pay no property taxes, use reduced postage rates for advertising, are often exempt from collecting sales tax on fitness membership dues, and use donated money to fund their gym offerings - forgive us for whining - it just doesn't seem fair, does it?

So, to these Y's in Missouri and Virginia, we say, suck it up. Welcome to our world.

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