Students at Phoenix Gymnastics at Hammond Park gym. (Courtesy Phoenix Gymnastics)

A loss of revenue caused by the pandemic, trouble finding coaching staff, and a problem with squirrels forced Phoenix Gymnastics to make late rent payments on the gym space at Hammond Park. Now, the city has terminated the company’s lease.

The city of Sandy Springs plans to put out a request for proposals to provide gymnastics classes at Hammond Park, Assistant City Manager Kristin Smith said during the Feb. 7 City Council meeting.

However, council members including Andy Bauman said they did not want to move forward without knowing if the complaints made about the gym facility were addressed first. Smith said there was funding for a Hammond Park master plan that would include determining needs for the gym, including repairs.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Gymnastic’s owner Gina White is looking at her options, even as angry parents come to her defense.

Pandemic restrictions cut students, revenue

In August 2019, the city signed an agreement with Phoenix Gymnastics through 2024 to provide recreational and competitive gymnastics for children ages eight months to 18 years old. The program serves 300 children.

Phoenix Gymnastics’ lease agreement with the city was set at $90,000 annually or $7,500 per month.

But the pandemic caused the city to close its facilities including the Hammond Park gym from March to June in 2020. When it reopened, COVID-19 protocols restricted the gym to only 40 children at a time and they had to wear masks. White said students were slow to return to the program.

She reached out for help from the city, which decided not to require any recreational contractor to pay rent while facilities were closed. And it reduced payments for following months.

“There’s no way in the world that we could have stayed open and continued to provide classes with those types of restrictions here,” White said.

White said she couldn’t find coaches willing to come back to work, forcing her to limit participants even as restrictions were easing. She asked the city for help and it restructured her agreement for the short term.

“We decided to reach out to some community high schools that have their work-based learning programs,” White said. “And we took in some high schoolers to train them to be certified as a gymnastics instructor.”

That wasn’t the only problem .

“There are squirrels that run around in the rafters during our classes, during our practices. Every once in a while, one of them might fall and so we have to deal with a squirrel running across the floor,” she said.

More financial difficulty came from the requirement to provide affordable classes for everyone, she said.

“It became difficult because now my expenses have gone up, but I’m still in this place where I had to make sure that this program is affordable for everyone in the city,” White said.

Phoenix Gymnastics increased its fees slightly to $20 per class or $120 for six sessions. Other gymnastics programs are charging much more.

White said she was unsuccessful in seeking grants and never heard about a city program that used $1.2 million program in federal funds to help small businesses survive the pandemic.

She started falling behind in rent payments in September 2020 after taking out loans during the pandemic to help with expenses.

The city issued a default letter on Nov. 18 for an unpaid balance of $22,500, giving Phoenix Gymnastics two weeks to make payments, Smith said at the council meeting.

Phoenix Gymnastics said on Nov. 28 it would not be able to meet the $7,500 monthly payments and asked that the rent be cut to $5,000. A month later the city terminated the lease, Smith said. A $22,500 payment had been received, but December’s $7,500 rent payment hadn’t been made.

White’s family helped cover the $22,500 in back payments. That left her with a $7,500 balance for December. The community including the parents of her students helped raise the money, which was sent to the city by early February.

“That takes care of all of my outstanding balances or debt that I had for that contract and presently we’re working on an hour-to-hour basis,” White said.

The city allowed Phoenix rental programming for $50 an hour, she said during the Feb. 7 meeting. The city began paying the $2,410 monthly cleaning cost.

Families look for locations or return to Hammond

A few families decided to look for other locations for Phoenix Gymnastics and have asked her for its requirements. Other families want to figure out how to keep it at Hammond Park.

White isn’t opposed to staying at Hammond Park, though she said it seems that the city already made its decision.

“I’d love to sit down and talk with them about how do you make this a working model,” she said.

Other cities like Roswell, Alpharetta and College Park have city-run gymnastics programs that have been in place for decades and they work, she said.

White said she’s reached out to all the council members over the years and invited them out to the gym. She acknowledged Councilmember Jody Reichel gave Phoenix Gymnastics a check for $500 after a council meeting in 2021, and White said she thanked her, inviting her to the gym to see where her money was going.

Jessica Kettula said her daughter loves Phoenix Gymnastics. “She became super interested in watching the competitive girls we even went to watch the Phoenix competitive team compete,” she said.

Kettula said parents were speaking out on behalf of Phoenix Gymnastics before City Council because they were stunned that the city removed this provider from under them in the middle of the year.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.