Sale of Cheshire Fitness Club is 'bittersweet' moment for owners

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News

Residents of Eastern Buncombe County won’t have to travel far to find the nearest YMCA beginning Sept. 4, when Cheshire Fitness Club becomes Black Mountain YMCA

Owners agreed to sell the fitness center, which was founded in 2004 and boasts around 1,400 members, to the YMCA of Western North Carolina, which announced its decision to acquire the facility on July 10.

“It’s a bittersweet moment for us, this was not an easy decision to make,” said Larry Brank, who founded Cheshire Fitness in 2004 with partners Dave Wilks, and Dave DeCurtis, who passed away in 2016. Stephanie Hayes joined Brank and Wilks as a partner in 2011. “We adhered to some sound advice given to us a year ago, when you develop your exit strategy for a business make sure you leave when the party is going on.”

The partners met with broker Carla Barnard last October, according to Hayes, who serves as the director of operations for Cheshire Fitness.

Dave Wilks, left, and Larry Brank founded Cheshire Fitness Club in 2004 with the late Dave Decurtis. Wilks, Brank and Stephanie Hayes, who joined the ownership group in 2011, agreed to sell the fitness facility to the YMCA of Western North Carolina, which will turn it into Black Mountain YMCA on Sept. 4.

“We asked her to start the ball rolling on getting this business ready for sale,” she said. “We knew it might take two years to sell, so we wanted to get prepared. Within three weeks we had an offer.”

Initial interest in the fitness facility came from out-of-state, Hayes said. Six weeks after listing the property they received an offer from the YMCA of WNC.

“I’m 65-years-old,” Brank said. “We’re not selling because we don’t enjoy this, we’re selling because the time is right.”

Brank grew up in the Swannanoa Valley where he was a standout athlete at Owen High School. He played baseball for a season at Montreat College, and three more at Warren Wilson College, his alma mater. Ironically, he would go on to have a 20-year career with the YMCA of WNC, which included a stint as the executive director of the downtown Asheville branch.

After finishing his YMCA career in 2001, Brank bumped into Village of Cheshire founder and developer Sikes Ragan.

“He said ‘how about you and I just build a fitness center,’” Brank said. “That’s how Cheshire Fitness Club started, that simple conversation right there.”

Brank began to talk to DeCurtis about developing a concept and Wilks was a willing investor. They discovered a facility in Big Canoe, Georgia that would serve as the template for what would become Cheshire Fitness.

“Everything indicated this was the right market niche,” Brank said. “We signed everything we had on the line and we rolled the dice.”

The club began attracting members quickly, according to Brank, bringing in patrons from Swannanoa to Marion.

“We started before they had a (YMCA) in Marion,” he said. “And there was really no gym presence in the area, so it looked good from the road, as my grandmother used to say."

Cheshire Fitness did well out of the gate, Brank said, but as with many small businesses around the country, the financial crisis of 2007 took its toll. 

"We were struggling," Brank recalls. "But our membership base grew and we saw it through because failure wasn't an option as a business owner."

In 2011 the owners purchased the building they'd been leasing since opening the facility. Acquiring the property was a turning point for Cheshire Fitness, Brank said. 

"We've been a very healthy vibrant business since then," he said. "I guess we ran a pretty good show because nobody really came in and competed with us."

A big part of the fitness center's success was due to the "family-owned" feel of the business, said Hayes, who worked for the YMCA organization in Florida for 10 years. 

"Someone posted on our Facebook page the other day that we're a gem of a gym," Hayes said. "And that's really what we've been, a little gym in this beautiful little town."

Although the small business atmosphere of Cheshire Fitness will likely change, the YMCA of WNC brings with it the ability to reach more people. 

Cheshire Fitness Club will become the Black Mountain YMCA on Sept. 4.

"What the Y brings to the table is the ability to serve underprivileged children in communities," Hayes said. "It's a non-profit organization and our business is not, so I think there are a lot of people in our service area who wanted to participate in Cheshire Fitness Club but were not able to afford it."

The YMCA of WNC has been serving the area since 1889 and offers a Y-access program that determines membership fees on a sliding scale. Membership includes resources such as swimming lessons and youth sports among others. 

Members of Cheshire Fitness will be automatically enrolled as members on Sept. 4, after the sale closes. 

In a statement, the chairman of the board of directors, Charles Frederick, called the acquisition of Cheshire Fitness "a way to better serve residents of Black Mountain, the Swannanoa Valley and Old Fort."

While Brank will miss seeing faces he's known his entire life at his fitness center, he's honored to have operated a business in his hometown that provides access to improved fitness and health. 

"We've had members come up and tell us we don't know what having Cheshire Fitness Club here meant to them," he said. "As a person who grew up here in this community that's wonderful to hear."

Brank and the other Cheshire Fitness owners are content knowing their company's vision will continue after they step aside. 

"The YMCA is a capable organization," Brank said. "They've got some great perks that they'll bring to this community and they can do things in this business that we probably couldn't have pulled off."