Home Opinion Greg Blass Greg Blass How will the SCCC fitness center fare?

Greg Blass
How will the SCCC fitness center fare?

Suffolk County Community College has just funded construction of a sports and fitness center at its Eastern campus. So what about the local fitness world in the private sector? Let’s explore the “gym” facilities here on the North Fork, and some insights into their culture. Let’s also delve into the interesting social side of our local fitness spots, and trends here and in other countries. Then we’ll share some thoughts about the SCCC Eastern campus project.

Riverhead hamlet is the site of the North Fork’s two major fitness centers, hosting a total of almost 5,000 paid members. There are similarly active, smaller facilities found as well in Wading River, Jamesport, Cutchogue — and one planned in Mattituck, where gym investors seek town approval to open an indoor swimming pool. Each of these has its own style, with its own circles of enthusiasts, along with their share of the not so enthusiastic, all part of America’s ongoing connection with physical fitness.

As everywhere, weight-training is a central activity, consisting of free weights and an ever-growing variety of weight “machines.” Yet weight-training is but one of a host of exercise choices at many of these places. Such aerobic devices as “climbers,” “stair masters,” and all manner of treadmills provide the cardio side of the fitness equation. There are also “aerial” facilities, boxing, TRX, “boot camp,” and “cross fit.”

Commonly called “gyms,” fitness centers have fast become a social center of the community; a neutral ground where all pursue workout routines, some on their own, and others together in groups or classes. In larger communities “up West,” large crowds gravitate to gyms and fitness centers day and night. “When I run on Sunday mornings,” one NYC resident explains in the N.Y. Times Magazine of Oct. 14, 2014, “I pass seven packed, bustling fitness boutiques, and five nearly empty churches.”

Back in the ’60s, columnist Jimmy Breslin chided younger reporters for avoiding the rough and tumble of the city streets in favor of elitist health clubs. Today’s gyms, however, are anything but elitist.

Here on the North Fork, gyms have evolved into a gathering point for all age groups. It’s where the common denominator of exercise and fitness, in one form or another, brings together every economic, educational, and ethnic background, and where the art of conversation seems to rival the art of any exercise form. Social distinctions evaporate with everyone donning sweats or gym shorts. And high-priced gym garb, down to the sneakers, also make the scene. In this connected world, many arrive at the gym and plug in iPods just to disconnect and escape during workouts. As one gym patron says, “It’s me, my music, and the weights.”

One who is new to such a varied place, or reluctant to step into a culture that is at the same time egalitarian and physically challenging, can always hire a personal trainer, or simply avail oneself of a staff consultant to show the way, be it a routine with weight/cardio machines, or all manner of classes. There’s also a well attended, and well received, three-credit course for beginner’s weight-training at SCCC, where a privately operated gym in downtown Riverhead serves as the hands-on, open classroom.

A heightened awareness of obesity and diabetes, of how to reverse the risk of a sedentary lifestyle (sitting is the new smoking); sensitivity to weight and diet, practicing balance for brain health; these help to explain a surge in fitness centers. Another trend locally and across America these days is grueling workouts not unlike a sort of physical atonement. Perhaps it’s a creature of our heightened fixation on extremes, on “more is always better.” This trend animates workout routines with a presumption that the extreme version of anything has to be an improvement on the original. But temper this with a relatively new and welcome feature in gyms: the absence of pressure to conform – it’s each to his/her own pace and intensity.

What paradox that we Americans have been in the forefront of child obesity, and still lead the world in fitness trends! But Fitness Magazine and other sources reveal how we can learn much from other societies as well.

Take Egypt, living proof of how a poor society embraces fitness, even where 40 percent of their 80 million population earns about $2 a day. The wealthier communities, especially those cropping up in Cairo’s suburbs, boast walled-in tennis courts and swimming pools, reminiscent of their colonial era. But in a great number of poorer communities, impromptu gyms multiply, where young men are devoted to health and weight-training, amidst rundown, windowless walls covered with posters of their icon, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Then there’s China, whose people overall are quite thin compared to Americans. Exercise is more socializing than calories. Basketball and badminton are popular street sports, as the outdoors are the “gyms” for China. Outdoors is where public school kids practice group calisthenics daily. Reports from all over China tell of city parks filled with agile senior folk walking backwards, practicing Tai-chi, and forever slapping their arms and legs for circulation. Later everyday, women crowd the parks for line- and ballroom dancing, always to the sound of Communist folk tunes, courtesy of the watchful government’s ubiquitous loudspeakers.

Workouts in France have little to do with any zeal for fitness and all to do with merely enjoying a variety of sports, especially walking, along with cycling, swimming and running, activities there that are by far more popular than weight-training.

In Iran, the fitness craze dramatically grows, with a populace quite taken by whatever exercise routines work for Westerners. Gyms similar to ours have opened in many communities, and interest has soared in routines and trends from the US. “Spinning” has reached the level of a craze. And while hardly Western in origin, interest in Yoga has soared to such an extent in the West as to earn new validity among young Iranians.

In Canada, however, a decades-long video-game paradise, personal fitness has yet to take off. Some communities seek to combine the national passion for hockey with traditional YMCA’s. Alberta is Canada’s lone wolf with its expanding, city-operated fitness center. Fitness barely holds its own in the rest of the country. “Participaction,” a government program tasked with inspiring Canadians to exercise, just downgraded its recommended, minimal level of activity owing to so few Canadians’ meeting existing standards.

Quite the opposite in Columbia, where every Sunday morning in Bogota, roads close to all motorized vehicles to give way to joggers, rollerbladers and bicyclists. Known as “ciclovia,” it creates miles of routes weaving through this city of 8 million, with a regular turnout of tens of thousands. Many cities in Central America are adopting this open-air form of fitness program.

So as our North Fork embraces the fitness culture, in private gyms or in the private home, the $20.9 million SCCC Eastern campus fitness center, half to be funded by county taxpayers, forms on the horizon. It’s hard to measure as yet its impact on the private gym sector. While the East End’s population growth has outpaced that of Suffolk and Nassau Counties, according to the 2000 Census, coupled with the five-year census estimate ending in 2015 (increase for Nassau: 1.5 percent; for Suffolk: 5.8 percent; for the five East End towns: almost 11 percent), still there are limited demographics here for fitness facilities.

This planned, 48,000-square-foot facility, boasting an eight-lane competition and diving pool of Olympic size, with spectator seating; a rock-climbing wall and weight room, a basketball court, several volleyball and badminton courts and a huge, three-lane indoor track, available to all county residents, will be quite a draw. Or will it?

Thanks almost entirely to its poorly negotiated, long-term, unsustainable contract with the police unions, the county sinks in huge debt. As with shaky OTB gambling revenues, Suffolk County now gambles on big bucks from this Eastern campus fitness center, so their yet-to-be-announced user-fee structure bears watching. Many corners were cut in the project’s design to allow for the pool, as county officials insisted, convinced it will be a desperately needed money-maker.

Virtually all revenues earned at this new SCCC facility will go to the county’s starving general fund, and not to the college. Consider Suffolk County’s 2017 overall operating budget, with $37 million in new fees and $12.3 million in fee increases. Is it likely that, once they are set up, fees charged to the general public for pool use will escape the county’s penchant for relentless fee increases? Time will tell. But for better or worse, the county’s costly, decades-long, imprudent mixing of politics and labor relations may well price them out of competition with the rest of the East End’s fitness centers.

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Greg Blass

Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport.
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