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Families and Fitness

Those Are the Themes Behind an Expanding Northampton Enterprise
Liz Cole

Liz Cole

Ten years ago, Liz Cole had two ideas: one for a health club, and one for a daycare. The two businesses launched independently of one another, but as both continue to prosper along with two more of Cole’s ventures, they’re blending together as they focus on a dominant theme: healthy families.

Liz Cole calls it “organized chaos” — the delicate balance of managing four independent businesses under one roof, three of which call children their primary clients.

At 33 Hawley St. in Northampton, the former home of the Rugg Lumber Company, Cole has created a unique mix of family- and fitness-oriented endeavors, including a health club, a daycare, a kids’ fun and fitness center, and an entertainment venue that provides everything from pizza parties for kids to club dances for the older set.

In fact, the notion of ‘fitness and family’ is one that Cole returns to often; she noted that each service she’s devised was designed to provide a comfortable space for both adults and children, and to teach a little something to all parties along the way. It can be a complicated business model to explain, but as the level of activity on Hawley Street continues to rise, it’s proving to be a successful one.

“Is every day utopia? No,” said Cole with a laugh. “But our bills are paid, there’s a little left over, and we have fun.”

Training Days

Cole has a background in social work and early-childhood education, including an eight-year stint in Seattle, Wash. with Head Start, the longest-running national school-readiness program in the U.S. This professional background, paired with the belief that physical fitness is a cornerstone for any healthy individual, was the driving force behind Cole’s idea to open fitness- and child-related businesses concurrently under one roof. She bought the 25,000-square-foot building that now houses her four individual businesses and a fifth, a pilates studio, in 1997. A year of renovations followed, and in January 1998 Cole’s inaugural venture, Universal Health and Fitness, opened its doors.

“The gym has an emphasis on overall fitness, and has an atmosphere where we hope everyone feels welcome — young, old, the very physically fit, and beginners,” Cole explained, noting that everything from the layout of the gym to the equipment reflects that mission. “The lines of equipment we use are sized for both men and women, and therefore are a little more gender-neutral than some other lines, for example, and the free weights aren’t hidden in the back so someone who wants to use them has to walk past everyone else in the gym to get there. That’s a big deterrent for some people, so ours are the first thing you see when you walk in. We tried to look at the gym from a new perspective, aimed at making the trip not-so-scary for people.”

A month after Universal Health and Fitness opened, Dolphin Daycare was launched on the bottom floor of the building, offering care and early education for infants to pre-kindergarten-aged children. Cole said her mantra about the two anchor businesses is, “my head is in the gym, but my heart is in the daycare,” and this helps explain the two divergent ventures.

“My background is in social work, so even though I’m not spending all day putting out fires for families in crisis, I can still help with parenting issues, behavioral issues, and other things,” she said. “We are a resource for families, and that adds something nice to the work I do every day.

“Plus, the gym doesn’t create as many referrals for the daycare as some people might think,” she added. “They’re definitely two different businesses. But that is good for word-of-mouth, and often, children who are part of the daycare move on to our before- and after-school programs that are used by parents who are also gym members. So gradually, all of the businesses are starting to mesh.”

The hardest evidence of this meshing quality came last spring, when Cole built another service into her existing ‘families and fitness’ objective.

Fitting It All In

With Universal Health and Fitness occupying the top floor and Dolphin Daycare using only half of the ground floor, a variety of tenants occupied the remainder of the building until last year, when Cole launched a third business, Universal Kids. This addition is a blend of activities, education, and entertainment, inviting children and their parents to visit for a dive into the ball pit, a kids’ yoga class, a birthday party, or just some play time in the free-play and snack-bar area.

“It’s all about fitness, families, and kids having fun,” Cole said. “The gym and the daycare have always coexisted, but this felt like the missing link — it made sense to combine the two ideas.”

As it turned out, Cole thought Universal Kids was a good idea on which to build, as well. Just last month, she added a fourth business to her repertoire, Club K, which operates in the same space as Universal Kids during evening and weekend hours.

Club K is an entertainment venue for children, teens, and adults, and events are scheduled on alternating nights to accommodate each age set. Thursdays, for example, are family fun night, at which parents and their children can learn a craft as they socialize over pizza and apple juice. Fridays are either teen nights, providing dancing and karaoke for 13- to 17-year-olds, or 18-plus open mic nights; and Saturdays are adult nights, welcoming anyone 21 or over to attend themed, DJ-led dance parties that begin earlier than most clubs (8 p.m.) and close at midnight. Club K has also secured a limited beer-and-wine liquor license for adult nights, which Cole is hoping to expand on further in the coming months.

“We launched Club K deliberately in the early summer because it’s a slower time for the other businesses, and we could get a feel for what people wanted and tweak the model from there,” she said. “It’s been a little hard to explain that we have events with beer and wine and also a daycare, but while the idea to provide all sorts of activities for families is part of everything we do, Club K has been designed to keep things very separate.”

As Universal Kids and Club K continue to grow in terms of programming — parenting classes and ‘speed dating’ nights complete with child care for parents are among the ideas being mulled — the building itself is also undergoing some changes. Cole said work is now underway to expand the upstairs pilates studio, which is rented to Nadya Kostek for her business, Personal Touch Pilates. Downstairs, the daycare is also getting a facelift, expanding to include six classrooms.

Working It Out

On the longer-range side of things, Cole said she’s also completed plans for a possible water park on the property, and is now in the process of securing a final location and financing. It is, indeed, the latest addition to a diverse model that requires a little bit of explanation, but everything is tied together, Cole repeated, with that pervasive theme of family.

“Every member of a family has needs, and we’re working to meet them,” she said. “When someone leaves after a great workout, they feel good. When a child comes home and can sing a whole song through for the first time, the child feels good, and the parents feel great. And when a parent leaves their six-week-old here with us, and leaves feeling good about it, we feel good.

“This is important work,” Cole concluded. “It’s fun and also exhausting, but above all else, it’s important.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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