Thursday, February 26, 2009

Circling the Drain: Bally's Total Bankruptcy on 47th Street

posted by chicago pop

A reader sends us the note below, alerting us to a Hyde Park Co-Op-style consumer revolt, this one taking shape against the ailing Bally's Total Fitness on 47th Street.

In bankruptcy for the second time in two years, Bally's facility and service have apparently both deteriorated, and, as happened with the Co-Op, customers are hemorrhaging to the South Loop. The difference is, in this case, it's not clear if there's a White Knight to keep the show going, as the U of C was able to at the 55th Street mall.

Those remaining and disgruntled members have managed to get Alderman Preckwinkle's involved, and a meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night. I'm not sure what Preckwinkle or anyone else can do if Bally's is really about to go under -- it seems like a stretch for the Alderman to reverse Bally's corporate fortunes, or improve the towel service, but there's no point in not trying.

What I can say is that if both the 47th Street clinic and the Bally's close, right across the street from the ever-vacant Co-Op branch, there will be an even larger, more desolate hole on one of Hyde Park-Kenwood's gateway thoroughfares.

Our reader informs us:

Feathers are beginning to ruffle at the Bally Total Fitness on E. 47th St. Unsatisfied members are joining forces to put pressure on Ald. Preckwinkle and Bally management to make drastic improvements to the club and/or bring a new health club to the community. Complaints include: deterioration of cleaning and maintenace service, elimination of towel service, poor management and customer service, unsanitary conditions, and rising memebership costs. Since the LA Fitness and XSport facilities have opened in the South Loop, there has been a mass exodus of Bally members to these cleaner/nicer/cheaper/no-contract-required clubs. Just like the grocery store issue, local residents are once again heading to Roosevelt Road or other communities to spend money and seek goods/services. In December, 2008 Bally's filed for bankruptcy for the second time in two years. They've been "circling the drain" for a while now; the chances for improvement are slim to none.

Ald. Preckwinkle will be meeting with community members and Bally's management on February 27. Residents and Bally members are encouraged to send an email to Preckwinkle ( with their specific concerns and requests around this issue. For more information, contact Ellen Kennedy at


Anonymous said...

I work out at the FFC on State. It's really nothing special but when looking for a gym last summer, I noted that it was cheaper than Ballys and was open 24 hours (except on weekends).

The Xport is a really cool place, took a tour just before they opened. It's about the same cost as FFC, has an indoor pool, steam rooms, saunas, rock climbing wall... the facility is just amazing.

Again, it's kinda the chicken or the egg: Who will take the leap and open up a large business there? The huge Co-Op FAIL just across the street and now the Bally bankruptcy probably make other retailers and service providers think that's a dead zone, which isn't really the case as we can see from the many successful businesses surrounding those two buildings.

(I've secretly hoped for a Trader Joes to open in the old 47th Co-Op).

Ellen said...

Amen on the Trader Joe's issue across the street. And, how about a Stone Cold Creamery or Soup Box somewhere around here? I digresss....
In an initial meeting with Ald. Preckwinkle on the Bally issue, she indicated that it was unlikely that anything would go in the abandoned Co-Op for some time given the legal in-fighting between the lessee and lessor.

As for a white knight in the Bally's situation, I can say that my group of activists have also reached out to alternative health clubs. A rep from a national chain has been in contact with me. They are interested in the Hyde Park community and the possibilities of bringing a club here.

I would rather have Bally's than no club at all. But, only as a last resort....

Elizabeth Fama said...

I've investigated the Trader Joe's idea for several years (in addition to sending letters to the corporate heads begging them to move here). They apparently looked at the 47th Street Co-Op site and rejected it based on their market research of the area. Someone at the University tried to prod them into re-assessing their decision more recently, but I don't think anything came of it.

As for workout spaces, my tennis partners and I need an indoor court in the neighborhood for winter play. I personally can't bear the idea of driving downtown for that. I tried it with the (now-closed) Lakeshore, and every week the driving, travel-time, and parking made me want to go for a quick jog instead.

chicago pop said...

I post the comment below on behalf of a reader who uses the Bally's on 47th:

We’ve witnessed the deterioration in services at Bally’s, but it’s the monopoly supplier and we have little choice unless we want to drive longer than we train.

We feel the discontinuation of towel service broke the contract we had with the club when we signed up. Even if the legalese protects the company from liability, towel service was presented as a benefit of membership. Towel service is important for more than just showering—it’s key to keeping equipment clean, since athletes can wipe their sweat off equipment after they use it, or use a convenient gym towel as a barrier between their body and equipment used by other sweaty folks.

Ordinary Bally’s are cheaper than most clubs, perhaps excluding the YMCA. The HP Bally’s facility is much larger, nicer, and less-crowded than our local YMCA (which oddly, does not offer kids’ gymnastics lessons). Even our local variety (Sports Clubs are the upper of two tiers of Bally’s gyms) costs significantly less than other options and members can train at hundreds of gyms in cities around the country. Based on personal observation only, not actual measurements or a broad survey, the Hyde Park Bally’s seems to be the newest, largest, and least-used of other Bally’s clubs. Among other features, our gym has over 100 cardio machines and a huge, high ceiling free weight area, lined with mirrors to check form—key to avoiding injury. Locker room floors were re-tiled about two years ago. The walls and floors of the main gym area were painted around that time and look new.

Our local Bally’s has made several investments that make no sense: two exotic $10,000+ “exercise” machines that sit completely unused for months on end and an unused full-size boxing ring. Management neglects to maintain even one heavy bag and one speed bag on the stands the gym owns, which is pity, since members used these items daily. This was not a combat scene. On the contrary, punching bags helped to develop a spirit of community among male and female boxing enthusiasts at the gym. Boxing was a convenient entry point for conversation. By failing to replace a few $200 heavy bags, Bally’s is missing an opportunity to cement memberships. If we managed the HP Bally’s, we’d return the boxing stations to functionality by adding a few heavy bags and a couple of speed bag platforms. These investments would pay dividends quickly, in attracting new members and keeping existing members on the roles.

We’d like to see it better run, but the HP gym is better than most Bally’s and location trumps some other frustrations. That said, we’d visit a new HP gym if it had comparable rates and also offered free parking. Despite our frustration, the HP Bally’s still seems like a good value to us.

We fail to see how the condition of a private gym is any concern of the alderman or any other government agency. Perhaps the alderman should focus issues concerning on public property, such as the cavernous holes in Lake Park near the Bally’s gym on Forty-Seventh Street. Also, this private gym is probably not a cause to be embraced by Hyde Park’s tireless defenders of the Co-Op and boarded up buildings shamelessly purchased in the free market by the university. The gym is much too nice for that crowd to be interested in rallying to protect it.

David Farley said...

Here's my Trader Joe's story. Take it for what it's worth.

I have a friend I used to run with sometimes who went to the U of C and used to live in Chicago. Out of the blue one day he asked me what the University's problem was with Trader Joe's. I had heard something about this so I explained the whole "HP didn't fit Trader Joe's demographics" story. My friend said that was a complete crock and went on to explain that he knew some people at Trader Joe's who had been trying to get in touch with the University (specifically, Hank Weber) because they were very interested in the 47th St. location, but Mr. Weber refused to take their calls. So, my friend also tried to call Mr. Weber to try to get them talking. No response.

But the canonical story from everyone I've talked to in HP is that it was Trader Joe's who turned down the 47th St. location because we didn't fit their demographics. So go figure. I have never set foot in a Trader Joe's, so I don't care one way or the other.

Yael said...

Just heard that Z&H had a similar experience when trying to rent from U of C (they rent from MAC now). What the hell? Our decision to live in Hyde Park when we moved here 2 years ago would have been less difficult had Trader Joe's, Z&H and other such amenities existed here. Doesn't the University want to keep its faculty and staff living in the hood?

I know lots of folks who long for a Trader Joe's in that spot.

edj said...

It's my understanding that one of the problems with the 47th Street Co-op space is that when the Co-op left and took out the refigeration equipment, etc, they sripped and cut everything down to the bare floor (according to the last Co-op General Manager), including pipes that came out of the floor. It would take at least several hundred thousand dollars to get the space ready to begin putting in shelves or whatever else would be needed by a Trader Joes. Previous Co-op management seemed to want t try to keep out any competition once they left.

Otto said...

Our local Bally’s has made several investments that make no sense: two exotic $10,000+ “exercise” machines that sit completely unused for months on end and an unused full-size boxing ring.

Anybody have a sense of how the Treasure Island shoeshine stand is working out?

Richard Gill said...

"Previous Co-op management seemed to want to try to keep out any competition once they left."

That's what they did, and that's why they did it. The hypocrisy of that action was self-evident. The Co-op was more interested in self-preservation, than in serving the community that the Co-op claimed to be supporting. That, and the Hyde Park Establishment's misguided attempts to keep the world out, finished off the Co-op. Good riddance, really good riddance.

edj said...

"Anybody have a sense of how the Treasure Island shoeshine stand is working out?"

I have never seen it used, but I have never seen anyone manning the thing either. If i had been the Co-op, they would have had it manned around the clock. I would guess that the thing will go away soon if it doesn't work out.

Other than that, I would say that the Treasure Island is working out nicely. Still a little overpriced, but it seems professionally run. It seems to get more crowded all the time.

Parker's Pets said...

As someone who owns a small business in HP, I can tell you from my own experience that the University is horrible to deal with regarding leasing commercial space. We've been looking to expand, but everything we're interested in is either 1) too expensive (someone needs to do something about the ridiculous rents in HP!!!!) 2) owned by the University, who wants nothing to do with paltry issues like, you know, GETTING MORE STORES IN EMPTY SPACES.

Anonymous said...

So far that's two business owners who have expressed frustration with the University in looking for shop space in Hyde Park. What's up with that? Is the U disorganized or apathetic? Maybe people are correct to ask for more transparency from them on these issues.

Richard Gill said...

Which commercial properties does the U of C own? I can list the HP Shopping Center and Harper Court. Does the U of C own Kimbark Plaza? Others?

J/tati said...

I too own a small business in HP, but don't rent from the University. However, after Art's Cycles went under last year the head mechanic David was able to lease a space from the University in the courtyard across from Bonjour Bakery... and knowing the margins that he's dealing with, I really doubt the rent is (typical HP) market rate. But I'm all for this form of subsidy: good for him! And good on the U of C!

edj said...

As we've all said here before, the university gets a bad rap. the university? It is expected to support the neighborhood and businesses, but if it does something to get development, it is accused of trying to dictate to the community. They have to make business decisions as they see it benefits them. And are there others coming in to fill the void to develop properties absent the university?

One more thing about Bally's. When I think of Bally's, I am reminded about what James Carville said about George Bush the elder in 1992: "George Bush (Bally's) is yesterday. It reeks of yesterday. When I look at an old calendar I think of George Bush (Bally's)"

Richard Gill said...

Except for the properties that are slated for demolition or renovation, I think all the U of C-owned retail space is filled. That suggests to me that they're doing something right.

Also, I agree with edj: People seem to want the U of C to be both benevolent (translation: paternal) but to also keep its hand out of things (translation: don't have influence over anything). It's one way or another. Insular Hyde Park oldies, of course, want it both ways.

I also agree that, had enough responsible companies stepped in to fill a vacuum, the U of C would not have felt compelled to do so.

Kofi Bofah said...

Business is Business.

Aldermen have the power to intervene at Bally's?


This is completely absurd.

Bally has been in big trouble on the corporate level for a while.