New Fitness Club Will Test Health Of Payson Market

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"How many health clubs can Payson support?" John Cheney asks rhetorically. "I don't know. I think we'll probably find out fairly shortly."

He will, indeed tentatively around Dec. 1, when construction of his new 4,000-square-foot Sawmill Health Club is completed and the doors are flung open.

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Owner John Cheney and manager Heather Slater have broken ground on the new Sawmill Health Club, a 4,000-square-foot fitness center that will soon open at Sawmill Crossing, near Quizno's Sandwich Shop.

Cheney's enterprise will join the Payson Athletic Club and the new Curves for Women on Payson's roster of health-and-fitness businesses. Although that may seem like an overabundance for a population of some 13,500, Cheney obviously thinks there's room for one more.

"We thought that the market needed something beyond the niches filled by the other two places," Cheney said. "What we're looking at is a very professional- and education-oriented training place where, no matter what level you're at beginning, intermediate or advanced there will be training and machines there for you."

The facility, he said, will be loaded with "brand new, top-of-the-line equipment, free weights, cardio and circuit machines, aerobics and everything that goes with it, the new spray-on tanning. It'll be just like something you'd find in the nicer plazas in Scottsdale."

Cheney, who has co-owned and operated the Body Works health club in Show Low for three years, co-owns the Sawmill Health Club with the facility's manager, Heather Slater.

"Heather has a degree in Exercise Physiology from Arizona State University," Cheney said. "She's a master trainer, she's trained for a long time, she's really good with people, and she's going to have programs for everybody."

Although it is Cheney's plan to open the club on or around Dec. 1, "anything can happen," he said. "The construction people (Kaibab Industries, which owns Sawmill Crossing) have to hit their deadlines, and then we have to hit ours" for the completion of the building's interior.

In the meantime, Cheney's development company, Treetop Builders, is involved in other area projects, including the construction of a medical building on Main Street, the eastward extension of Main Street to Payson Regional Medical Center, and a Payson home for Cheney.

"I like small towns, and I like bringing new things to a small town, because everybody gets excited about it," Cheney said. "I mean, if I go down to put a health club in Phoenix, nobody's excited about that."

Bear market

Keven Rush's excitement is muted, to say the least.

"To be honest, it surprises me that, in such a small community, somebody would do that after we just opened up our new facility," said Rush, owner of the Payson Athletic Club, which only a few months ago moved into a larger space in the Rim Country Mall.

"One of the reasons we wanted to create a bigger and better place was to discourage (competitors) from coming in because, in the past, the market hasn't been able to accommodate two gyms," Rush said. "So we were hoping to avoid any direct competition until the town grew a little bigger."

That didn't happen. Still, Rush is philosophical about the unexpected arrival of a new competitor.

"You know, there's nothing you can do about it," he said. "That's just the way a free market works."

Although the Payson Athletic Club has had a total of 20 years to build up its clientele, this is not a town where one can rest on any laurels or count on customer loyalty, Rush observed.

"We've tried to do a lot of things for our customers, to go that extra mile, so that when something like this did happen we would have that advantage," he said. "But Payson's a funny town. It's very hard to predict how the market is going to react."

However the market reacts, it may take some time before Rush fully realizes the impact or lack of impact the Sawmill Health Club will have on his business.

"I can't even tell you if Curves has impacted us or not, since we had just opened up our new facility when they came along."

Martha Hemphill, the owner and manager of Curves for Women, doesn't think she's had any effect on Rush's business, and doesn't expect the Sawmill Health Club to have any effect on her own enterprise.

"I don't know that either one is really competition, because I'm in sort of a unique niche with a unique population," Hemphill said. "My clients are mostly women, and they're usually not interested in going to the larger gyms anyway."

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