Gym owners call pandemic-support program unfit for business

Winnipeg gym owners say a pandemic support program the province just decided to expand is unfit for their industry.

On Monday, Manitoba topped up the funding for its Safe at Home grant program, which pays artists, non-profit organizations and some businesses and to provide free virtual programming.

Since December, the program has allowed musicians to livestream performances, educators to teach kids about art and chefs to offer cooking classes online. The program funding, which the province touts as improving Manitobans’ health and well-being, has been increased from $3 million to $5 million.

Some gyms, however, complain the program poses a danger to its financial health because it also funds free online fitness classes at a time when brick-and-mortar businesses are trying to convince their customers to pay for services online.

“These programs that are offering free fitness classes are in direct competition to fitness programs and classes that we are charging for, so it’s frustrating,” said Amie Seier, owner of The Community Gym in Winnipeg’s Exchange District. 

“So it’s counterintuitive. It’s not really helping a business and in fact, it’s actually going beyond that and hurting business.”

Seier, who has had to close and reopen her gym twice during the pandemic, has spent $20,000 creating a studio within her business that allows her to create online fitness classes.

She applied to offer fitness classes to students through the Safe At Home program and was rejected. To make matters worse, the province used her image and that of The Community Gym to promote remote fitness instruction.

“We definitely thought we were going to be able to get that grant and to have it not come through is devastating. Then seeing yourselves in the promos again, is a bit of a slap in the face,” she said.

Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Cathy Cox said she does not know why brick-and-mortar businesses were not prioritized in the program.

“We weren’t the individuals who made those decisions,” Cox said Monday during a news briefing, adding external organizations vetted the applications.

Cox nonetheless described the Safe At Home program as a “tremendous success” on the basis more than 2,000 applications were made under the program.

The province used Seier’s image to promote stay-at-home fitness prgramming on social media. Her gym was turned down for a Safe At Home grant. (Amie Seier)

Dino Camire, the leader of the Manitoba Coalition of Fitness Centres, said the government is subsidizing competition against gyms at a time when brick-and-mortar businesses are already struggling to pay rent, hold on to their customers and diversify their programming.

He implored the province to consider the effect of a similar program on the restaurant industry.

“Would you be OK with the province opening up a program where they gave money to people at home to create food that was available for free for people to pick up while your restaurant is closed and you’re forced to do curbside pickup?” said Camire, who also owns One Family Fitness Centre.

“That’s exactly what they’re doing with our industry. They’re subsidizing these programs and then they’re heavily marketing them online.”

Cox said Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative government is helping businesses in other ways. For example, she said, the province has offered small businesses $5,000 grants.

Seier said she received one of those grants, but that does not begin to cover the losses The Community has incurred.

She implored the province to reconsider funding fitness programs.

“Think about what you’re doing. Really think through the consequences of a program like this,” she said. “Like who are these funds actually going to and how are they helping? Are these programs actually being used? Is this just a front for the government to say, ‘Hey, look at all the good stuff we’re doing’?”