Rick Piper is selling the venue to general manager Frank Baer, in a transaction that is expected to be finalized in mid-December.
Piper, who will celebrate his 65th birthday next month, said he has considered selling for a number of years.
“It was a perfect storm of things that made this seem like the right time,” he said.
Piper bought the business in 1995. It originally opened in 1986 in a space that was once occupied by the Camac Baths.
Once he came onboard, Piper said the business got a much-needed overhaul.
“It was worn out. It hadn’t been properly maintained; it was in bad shape, the equipment wasn’t up to date, and I saw a real business opportunity there,” Piper said. “We got new carpeting, new equipment, did a lot of work. This complex can be either really cool and funky or it can be dumpy and beat-up, and there’s a very short distance between the two.”
Piper noted that 12th Street — which opened before the modern concept of a fitness club became popularized — is not the standard “big-box gym in a shopping center,” but is rather “a wonderful, interesting labyrinth” that needs to be properly maintained, a challenging task he said he believes he lived up to.
“What you see today is partly evolution but at the beginning it was really a revolution,” he said. “It was a dramatic investment of money, time, energy and people, and the marketplace responded quite aggressively.”
Since Piper took over, membership jumped from 1,400 to more than 4,000.
While the venue has been dubbed by some as the city’s “gay gym,” and both Piper and Baer are members of the LGBT community, the club’s membership base is reflective of the diversity that abounds in Center City.
Members include gay and straight singles, couples and families, students, seniors and city officials. Piper said he recently spotted a gay couple embrace as they departed just as Mayor Nutter walked by.
“The community in this area has become far more diverse than it used to be,” he said. “As there’s been a greater assimilation of the gay community into the larger community and into other areas of the city, the neighborhood has become far more mixed, and the gym has become the same way. We’ve kept up the drumbeat of feeling honored to serve the gay community but we’ve worked to open the doors even wider.”
Those efforts resulted in a venue that functions less like a gym and more like a community meeting place, Piper said.
While members can utilize the equipment and fitness classes, they can also mix and mingle with others in the lounges, play ping pong, relax on the sundeck or learn about the barrage of area entertainment, dining or nonprofit ventures — as 12th Street has aimed to partner with and promote a wealth of area businesses and organizations.
“We’re very much a part of the heartbeat of this area,” Piper said. “When Frank and I talked about the sale, we had some real personal discussions about what this place is, and it’s really a center for community. And I mean that in almost the verb sense. Community is occurring here. You see people sitting in the café interacting who you know would never have contact otherwise. You see straight people, gay people, married people, strollers rolling through, the mayor rolling through. There’s nothing else like this in the city.”
By most accounts, Piper’s business model also included top-notch customer service in every aspect of the club, which required hands-on leadership from him.
“Throughout the chain of command, everyone should reflect a very serious commitment to our standards. I have this statement that I follow: I tell people what needs to be done, show them what needs to be done, tell them what I showed them, verify it and correct it as needed,” he said. “It’s a five-step process that can apply to everything from making sure the floors are clean to the music being right. It’s been the toughest challenge and it exists every day, and it’s something that will exist for Frank as well, but these standards should define the customer’s experience.”
Baer, who was in the hotel industry before becoming 12th Street’s general manager 14 years ago, said he shares Piper’s vision that the club should operate with a mind toward hospitality.
“People typically view a health club as a gym, where you can throw your weights around and sweat on the mirror and the receptionist chews gum and drinks coffee,” he said. “On our end, we view this from a hospitality standpoint, where the receptionist should handle the customers as they would at a hotel.”
Piper said he’s had a number of offers from chain gyms over the years but, if he was going to sell, he wanted it to be to someone who was familiar with the club and its commitment to diversity and community, and someone who had a “vision and understanding of why this place works.”
Baer, who’s been influential in developing the club’s Camac Center, a collection of 18 service providers that range from masseuses to acupuncturists, said he’s eager to bring the venue into its next stage while keeping it true to its roots.
“It’s exciting to keep changing it and reformatting it,” he said. “We have a good base of members here who’ve been here for years and years, and we want to keep providing them what they expect but then also be willing to change as the neighborhood changes and expectations of fitness change.”
While the pair joked that Baer may eventually order treadmills of a different brand, they said members shouldn’t notice the ownership transition immediately.
Piper is unsure what his next employment venture will be, but said he’s going to force himself, possibly unsuccessfully, to take some down time.
“Contrary to my nature, I’m trying hard to finish this and catch my breath,” he said. “I’ve literally been at this 18 hours a day, about 355 days a year. It’s been intense but that’s been my choice because I care about this business. I think breaking that habit may be more of a challenge than I realize but I’m planning on taking a very long nap and, at least for the moment, trying to slow down. But I have a feeling that lying in a hammock and pondering the joys of retirement is not in my future.”