If you’re a fitness studio or gym owner, you know that getting your business up and running is no small feat. From securing finances and scouting out the perfect location to figuring out your marketing and staffing plan, the to-do list that comes with opening a studio is seemingly endless. And if you’re opening a space in New York City, you’ll need a special permit to operate, what the city refers to as a physical culture establishment permit.
What exactly is a physical culture establishment? New York City defines it as a health club or similar business that improves a person’s physical condition through exercise or by massage. Physical exercise programs include aerobics, martial arts or a business that uses exercise equipment.
If you’re in a hurry to open your studio or gym, be warned: the permits typically take 4 to 6 months and permit and legal fees can be pretty costly. Though the NYC site doesn’t specify the cost, it does say “special permit application fees are generally proportional to the floor area planned for the establishment.” According to Crain’s, “the de Blasio administration estimates that the process of obtaining a physical culture establishment permit can take nearly six months and cost up to $50,000 in fees and payments to lawyers.” (Yikes.) The good news? Once you have your permit, it’s valid for up to 10 years before you have to renew it.
The History Behind the Permits
Why does New York City make it so hard to open a business whose goal is to encourage physical fitness and a healthy, active lifestyle? The answer dates back to the late 1970s, when city officials were working to combat the rise of shady massage parlors in Times Square. Despite the fact that the area has been a family-friendly tourist mecca for years, the permit requirements remain stubbornly in place. So what do you need to do to secure a physical culture establishment permit?
For starters, you’ll need to spend some quality time reading up on what’s required to secure the permit on the nyc.gov website. The list of requirements is long and complicated. There are questionnaire forms, application forms and a bunch of mandatory paperwork including plans, government documents and photographs. Besides the physical culture establishment permit, business owners must also file an application for an environmental quality review. Ideally, you should try to file both applications together.
Is there any way to simplify an already labor-intensive and time-consuming process that often gets mired in red tape? Here are a few things business owners should do before embarking on the journey to secure the coveted permit:
Talk to New York City studio and gym owners who’ve successfully gone through the process.
How long did it take them to secure the permit? Sometimes, the process takes even longer than the 4-6 months listed on the website. Ask them for advice on how to reduce the timeline and simplify the process. Make sure to ask what they wish they had known before going through the application process. Finally, find out the worst-case scenarios from owners who have their permits so you’re prepared for obstacles you may not have anticipated.
Be aware that you may not need a physical culture establishment permit if you’re opening a yoga or dance studio.
Dance and yoga studios, according to the city, may be exempt from these regulations. Why the exemption? A city zoning resolution explains that commercial yoga instruction is typically provided in an open floor plan arrangement similar to a dance studio or retail establishment and doesn’t require exercise equipment. To qualify for the exemption, among other requirements, the studio can’t exceed 1,500 square feet and can’t have showers or bathtubs. You’ll need to confirm whether your studio qualifies for an exemption with city officials.
Hire a lawyer if you can afford one.
Besides the extensive paperwork, there are other requirements that can get pretty onerous, like having to send notifications to local businesses within two blocks and attending a hearing before a review board. In other words, you have to convince nearby businesses that your studio is great for the area and that you’ll be a good neighbor. Lawyers who’ve gone through this process know what to expect when it comes to potential complaints so they’ll make sure you’re prepared for whatever comes your way. Think of it like hiring a seasoned accounted or tax attorney to do your taxes. In the end, you’ll save a lot of time and could potentially save on fees by using a lawyer who specializes in securing the permits.
Know that there may be loopholes that make the process easier.
A lawyer is most likely to know exactly what those loopholes are. Existing studio and gym owners and architects may also be able to fill you in on loopholes based on their past experiences. For example, there may be a loophole associated with the type of building you are looking at. Ask the professionals you’re working with if they’re aware of any loopholes that may help you speed up the process. You’ll never know until you ask.