How Cedardale Health & Fitness has navigated two disasters — a fire and a global pandemic — and managed to maintain a strong and thriving community through it all.
Imagine building a club in your community over the span of four-plus decades. Think of the memories made, the lives improved and the jobs created. And then imagine it being lost in the blink of an eye. To say that would be heartbreaking is an understatement.
It’s a reality Cedardale Health & Fitness in Haverhill, Massachusetts, faced after a fire destroyed the facility in 2017.
“The fire took almost all of our 185,000-square-foot building that had been in existence for 47 years,” recalled Ada McKenzie, the co-owner of Cedardale and daughter of Ed and Zoe Veasey, who founded the gym with two other couples in 1971. “My dad is the one who made the decision the day of the fire and said to the news people, ‘We will rebuild.’”
And rebuild they did. Working with architecture firm S3 Design, the project took two years to come to fruition and is the culmination of every best practice the Cedardale team has gleaned in its now 50-year history. Featuring 10 tennis courts, an elevated track, six bodies of water, two basketball courts and more, the facility reopened in May 2019 to great fanfare from the local community.
This includes Jackie Tropiano, who has been a member of Cedardale since the mid-70s.
“When the fire happened, it was heartbreaking,” said Tropiano. “A few of us actually got together and went out to lunch because everybody was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ve lost our club.’ The first day they announced they would be taking pre-registrations at the new facility, I was there. I was so excited.”
As a result of the fire, McKenzie said the team is used to uncertainty, making them prime candidates to navigate their next big challenge: a global pandemic and subsequent mandated shutdown.
“When the pandemic struck, we had been open for less than a year after the fire, so in some ways we were more prepared to deal with the restrictions that were in place in Massachusetts,” said McKenzie. “Cedardale was virtually new with up-to-date HVAC systems, high ceilings and open spaces, which enabled us to space equipment and give our members the room to feel safe while working out.”
Both tragedies — the fire and pandemic — reinforced for Cedardale the importance of the club and what it means to the community.
“This primarily has to do with our staff and our team — but the key differentiator for us is the community we create,” said Carolyn Jackson, the co-owner of Cedardale and McKenzie’s sister. “That’s what brings the majority of our members back. It’s also what helped us tremendously during the pandemic, where members talk to friends and they talk to them about the community of Cedardale, and what a difference it makes in their lives as we all go through such hard and challenging times.”
As Cedardale looks to the future, giving back to the community — one that’s supported them enthusiastically through the ups and downs of the past 50 years — is the top priority.
The Cedardale team is thinking outside the box to do so, and a great example is its Wellness Advisory Board. Formed soon after the fire, the board encompasses medical experts ranging from doctors and chiropractors to physical therapists and mental health professionals at local colleges.
The goal? To partner with the medical field, get their feedback on what they’re seeing and hearing from clients, and together, come up with solutions to solve the community’s biggest challenges.
“Sometimes we can sit around as operators and say, ‘Hey, we think we should do a wellness program on sleep, or we think we should do something on Tai Chi,’ and we’re kind of just guessing at what the community needs,” explained Jackson. “The Wellness Advisory Board brings a great perspective because they tell us, ‘This is what people are saying, this is what people are craving, and these are the obstacles they have to get past in order to walk through your doors.’ So that’s really been an eye opener for us.”
An example of a program that has resulted from the board’s feedback is one on fall prevention, which educates participants on fall risks and works to strengthen and improve balance and coordination. It has been wildly successful.
“It’s been full each session, and it’s met the needs not only of strengthening people so they feel more independent and confident, but there’s also the community aspect of it,” said Jackson. “Having these individuals get together and share a common goal and a common fear of losing their independence, has just been fantastic.”
Through the Wellness Advisory Board, Cedardale has also gained referrals for its HealthyLIVING program, a 90-day wellness course led by one of the club’s registered dietitians, that aims to educate participants on a healthy diet and lifestyle.
As a result, the relationship with the Wellness Advisory Board has proved to be synergistic and is a great starting point for the club to become more integrated with the medical community.
“Everyone on our board, they are all participating to help people, and they’re passionate about improving people’s lives,” said Andrew Gunberg, the executive director of Cedardale. “They share that with us. When we connect together with the medical community, it creates a lot of positive energy and it’s very productive.”
Beyond medical partnerships, Cedardale is also seeking to better serve a specific demographic in its community: children.
In 2020, Massachusetts had a record high of 125 drowning deaths. According to the CDC, drowning is the leading cause of injury deaths for kids ages one to four.
In addition, childhood obesity is on the rise, affecting 14.4 million children and adolescents between 2017 and 2018, according to the CDC. This is especially the case among certain populations, with the CDC reporting obesity prevalence of 25.6% among Hispanic children, 24.2% among non-Hispanic Black children, 16.1% among non-Hispanic White children and 8.7% among non-Hispanic Asian children.
With these challenges in mind, Cedardale is looking to partner with schools on water safety and nutrition in an effort to combat drownings and obesity from an early age.
“It’s really tough to get a bus to come and bring the kids to you,” said McKenzie. “I think we’ve got to get into the schools. And you have to start young, especially with nutrition. When you have generation after generation of families who have never really understood good nutrition, it’s tough to break that cycle. Anything we can do to help that is key.”
Of course, to achieve the goals of serving the community, whether it’s through water safety education or partnerships with the medical community, you must employ a team of leaders and staff who truly care about helping others.
According to McKenzie, this doesn’t result from a specific team training or onboarding process but from hiring the right people.
“When you’ve sat across the table from people as long as I have, it is the people who are naturally friendly and who want to help people who stick,” said McKenzie. “It’s not just a job to them, it is fulfillment. And knowing they work for a company that is fulfilling that to other people — I really think it starts there.”
Keeping great people then comes down to a team atmosphere and “in-it-together attitude,” which Gunberg said is prevalent throughout Cedardale’s culture.
“The team atmosphere we have with our staff is contagious,” said Gunberg. “That comes from not having departments that are segregated. All our staff are willing to help out in other areas. When we put up a tennis bubble, we have 20 or 30 staff who just jump in and help out, and that’s huge.”
According to Gunberg, this culture then trickles down to the membership. “Obviously our members won’t ever meet their goals or have excitement to come here if you don’t have good staff,” he said. “When we have staff who are like minded with the same goals and mission, it makes it organic and natural for the members to have that experience as well.”
As Cedardale celebrates its 50th anniversary this December, the team is proud of the challenges it has overcome up to this point — challenges that may have put others out of business.
McKenzie gives credit for their longevity to a team of individuals who aren’t immediate family but treat it like their family business all the same.
“There’s a lot to be said about being in the same place for as long as we have,” said McKenzie. “I can’t say enough about the wonderful teamwork. There’s not one of us who could keep this place going without our team. They think of this club almost as much as any family member and they have been so true blue that I can’t imagine the business without them.”