Ottawa Athletic Club closing for good after 44 years as pandemic hits fitness business hard

OAC weight room
OAC weight room

After nearly half a century of helping Ottawa residents live healthier lifestyles, one of the capital’s best-known family businesses says it no longer has the financial strength to keep its doors open amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

Ottawa Athletic Club founder Sol Shabinsky said Tuesday the 44-year-old fitness facility on Lancaster Road will close for good later this week. The real estate entrepreneur blamed the pandemic for the closure, explaining in a social media post that “the effects of COVID-19 have generated significant challenges” for a business that relies on people gathering indoors in close proximity to one another.

“As a result, it is with varying emotions that I am announcing that a decision has been made to wind down the operations of the OAC,” Shabinsky said. 

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The fitness centre’s final day of operations will be this Friday.

Shabinsky’s son Ian, who now serves as the OAC’s president, told OBJ the facility was no longer financially viable due to the provincially imposed 50-person limit on the number of customers allowed in the facility at one time.

“The business model just wasn’t going to work,” he said. “There’s no certainty as to when that might change.”

Before COVID hit, up to 1,500 people a day passed through the OAC, which featured amenities such as an indoor running track, salt-water swimming pool, 20,000-square-foot exercise and weight room, spinning studio and indoor tennis and squash courts. 

But general manager Marc Peterson said it quickly became clear many members felt uncomfortable with the thought of congregating indoors and sharing fitness equipment during a pandemic. 

“We tried to make it a go, but with the feedback we’re getting from our membership of how concerned people are to come back to the facility, we just did not see how we could move forward,” he said. 

“A significant part of our members are senior citizens and they were very concerned about coming back (during) COVID.”

‘Lots of competition’

The club had about 4,000 members, a number that’s held “relatively steady” over the past several years, Ian Shabinsky said. While conceding that holding market share in the fiercely competitive fitness industry was an ongoing struggle, he said it’s “nothing like what we’ve faced in the last six months.” 

Peterson agreed.

“There’s lots of competition everywhere, and when you have a facility of this size with that many people walking through the door, it’s just very, very difficult with COVID and not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said, adding the OAC laid off almost all of its 150 employees at the beginning of the lockdown in March before hiring a few back when the facility reopened for summer camps and tennis in June.

“You need a certain amount of people … on a daily basis using your facility to make it viable. Right now, it’s impossible. You just can’t do that and be able to still keep people safe.”

Fitness centres were a novelty back in 1976 when the elder Shabinsky opened the OAC with the help of legendary Rough Rider star Gerry Organ. Over the years, the club welcomed the likes of high-tech mogul Mike Cowpland as well as tennis icons Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl.

Ian Shabinsky said it will be hard to say goodbye to a place that’s been like a second home.

“I played tennis there as a kid when I was 12, 13 years old every single day,” he said. “When I phoned my four kids to tell them that we decided to wind things down, it was quite emotional.

“But I do think we’ve made the right decision. We’re so proud to have served our members and the region for as long as we did. Forty-four years is a good run.”

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