'There is definitely worry': Centretown fitness entrepreneur ponders future in wake of latest shutdown

Iron Studio
Iron North Studio's new facility in Centretown is four times larger than its previous gym in Hintonburg. Photo courtesy Iron North Studio

After getting her Centretown fitness facility into the best financial shape of its life before the holidays, Jenna Ladd now faces the grim prospect of losing those gains amid another COVID-fuelled shutdown.

The province’s move to shutter gyms for at least three weeks starting Wednesday as part of new restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant is hardly the news the owner of Iron North Studio on Somerset Street was hoping for to kick off the new year. 

“As disheartening as (a shutdown) would have been before the holidays, it would have been better than leaving it to the day that many businesses elected to reopen and started having a little bit of hope that they can move forward,” Ladd said earlier this week.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, measures like the ones imposed by the province on Monday have become a frustrating fact of life for Ladd and other gym owners. 

But she said she’s feeling the sting of the latest closure even more than usual because it comes just as her facility was settling into a new location and rounding into financial form. 

Move from Hintonburg

After seeing income slow to a trickle earlier in the COVID crisis, Iron North posted record revenues in November. The gym, which moved to its current home in Centretown in August after being located in Hintonburg for six years, is in the midst of a full-scale renovation, and Ladd felt the business had finally turned the corner heading into 2022.

“We realized that we’d made the right choice and it was going in the direction that we anticipated without even really marketing,” she said.

At 5,500 square feet, Iron North’s new facility is four times larger than its old home just over a kilometre to the west on Somerset. Ladd had been mulling over a move to bigger digs for several years, she said, adding she felt good about her choice to relocate last summer.

"We put a lot of our eggs into this basket. It’s a risk we decided to take."

“We put a lot of our eggs into this basket,” she conceded. “It’s a risk we decided to take. We just didn’t anticipate two years (after the pandemic hit in early 2020) being in another lockdown scenario.”

Since the renovations began, labour shortages and supply chain bottlenecks have pushed the projected cost of the project from $80,000 to almost $250,000. 

The ballooning price tag already had Ladd warily eyeing her balance sheet even before she knew she’d have to close her doors for at least another 21 days. As in past shutdowns, the veteran entrepreneur said she’ll pivot to virtual classes and training sessions in a bid to recoup at least some of the income she expects to lose over the next few weeks. 

But Ladd said the novelty of online fitness has worn off for many clients, and she’s not expecting much of a bump.

“We’re now well-versed in hitting (the financial) red line,” said Ladd, who took out a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada in 2020 and staged a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $15,000 to help her weather the COVID financial storm. 

“That’s likely going to happen unless we find some folks that are really keen on going into virtual membership options, which usually isn’t the case. Everyone’s kind of over it. There is definitely worry there.”

Ladd also frets about the financial and mental well-being of the more than 20 instructors, trainers and office staff she usually employs at Iron North, many of whom now find themselves temporarily out of a job. 

She said that, like many other small business owners over the past two years, she’s gotten used to bottling up her emotions as a coping mechanism.

“It allows me to keep things moving forward,” Ladd said. “However, it comes at a cost.

“That’s the sacrifice you make as an entrepreneur. It’s this weird balance of sacrificing your own mental health for the betterment of your business.”

Still, she remains hopeful that better days are ahead, adding she believes her sweat and tears will pay off in the long run.

“It’s really a bummer that (growth) is going to get stagnated again and we’re going to have to restart,” Ladd said. “But (the rebound) happened (before), so I think it’ll happen again.”