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Turning to donations, Columbia gym Point Fitness finds unusual success

The Point Fitness owner Michelle March assists Kendra Tyson. The Columbia gym is a donation-based membership gym.
The Point Fitness owner Michelle March assists Kendra Tyson. The Columbia gym is a donation-based membership gym. (Jay Reed / Baltimore Sun)

After one local couple fell in love over fitness, they were excited to open a gym in Columbia.

But it wasn’t exactly the success that they were hoping to find in a new business.

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“It ended up being just another gym in Columbia,” said Michelle March, 29, who opened the Point Fitness in December with her boyfriend, Jacob Haiss. “We had no customer flow and went months without anyone coming in.”

So they had a drastic idea: Take away the $15-a-month membership fee and become a “free gym.”

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In March, they started running completely on donations.

“I figured if we went out of business because our gym didn’t work, that’s one thing, but if we went out of business without anyone ever knowing we’re here, that would really be a shame,” March said.

And going free is working out.

Haaris Majid and Mark Covington, Howard County Public School graduates, have recently opened up Progressive Athletics in Columbia. The small batch gym is geared toward the 30 to 50 age bracket.

Between December and March they made a total of $90 in membership fees. Since turning donation-based, the gym has made more than that every week in donations.

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“We’ve had more people coming in than we ever had before because we’re different than other gyms now,” said Haiss, 27, co-owner of the Point Fitness. “People hear ‘free gym’ and they wonder what the catch is, and once they find out that there are no strings attached they tell their friends and word of mouth just keeps spreading.”

Use of the equipment, the open space and taking classes like Zumba are completely free and on the donation-based system.

The only services that cost money are one-on-one training programs.

Both March and Haiss are certified personal trainers and offer their services for a fee out of the gym. They also found another business opportunity by offering a low fee for personal trainers to use the gym space to train their own clients.

The co-owners are trying to make the space fun and accessible to all with different kinds of features.

At Howard County’s first Orangetheory gym, workouts are competitive – but members’ only opponents are themselves.

In addition to their regular evening hours, they offer “hours on demand” where those wishing to work out at a time the gym isn’t open can simply go online and request to “open the gym” at a time convenient for them. They also have events like “dog day,” where those working out in the gym on Sundays can bring their dogs in during designated times.

“When I first heard of it, I thought there ain’t nothing in the world that’s really truly free,” said Kendra Tyson, 39, of Columbia. “But they actually mean it. I donate when I can but sometimes I can’t afford it and they still treat me like family even if I can’t put money in the box.”

Getting married and moving kept Jalisa Ray, 27, of Columbia, from being able to afford a steady gym membership. So when she heard about a new free gym, she was all in.

“I had never heard of a free gym in my life,” Ray said. “It’s incredible and refreshing to see how much Michelle cares about helping people get healthy. That’s her entire focus.”

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