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Trainers adjust to new park permitting system

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Fitness buffs take to Austin's parks in force every day of the week, turning green spaces into outdoor yoga studios, weight rooms and boot camps.

Crowds have grown so much in recent years that on Jan. 2, city officials began requiring commercial trainers to get a permit that allows them to use city parks to coach clients.

The new system has been controversial, though, and three months in, we wondered how it was working out.

To operate legally today, each trainer who leads group classes in any of 34 downtown parks must register, fill out an application and pay a $50 fee for a six-month park-use permit.

Trainers who work with four or more clients at a time also must pay a monthly use fee of 45 cents per client per day. The fee is capped at $1,500 per trainer per six-month permit period.

So far, 55 trainers have registered. Current permits will expire June 30, when trainers must register for another six-month period.

As of April 5, the permits and user fees had brought a combined $5,310.50 into the city's general fund. The biggest contributor was Camp Gladiator, which, according to city records, has paid nearly $1,500.

The camp, founded by Ally Davidson, employs 25 trainers in Austin. Participants sweat their way through hourlong cardio and strength sessions that include games like capture the flag and freeze tag. As many as 80 students work out at once, and classes are staged in 60 locations across the city, from Zilker Park to Auditorium Shores and the Long Center.

Davidson, who served on the task force that helped come up with the new rules, has mixed feelings about the permitting process and its effect on her camps, which also operate in 14 other cities.

"I agree that trainers need to have a permit to provide training in a park, but I just want to make sure that the amount that groups are charged is affordable enough so that we can continue to make fitness affordable to the masses," she says. "If our rates are really high, we're going to have to push that back on the consumers, and I don't want to do that. We literally are trying to fight obesity and health problems in the U.S."

Campers already pay taxes on Austin's parks, she says. They also have to pay $5 to park at Zilker Park on weekends.

"Shouldn't we be encouraging fitness and not making it continuously more difficult for people to get involved with fitness?" she says.

Other trainers take issue with the logistics of the permit program.

Neissa Springmann, who heads up iGnite, an outdoor fitness program predominantly for women, says she doesn't mind paying for a permit every six months, but finds the monthly reports and user fees tedious.

"As a business owner, small or big, you have a million things you're trying to juggle," Springmann says. "It's just a hassle, a major inconvenience. I have no problem with the permit. We're legitimately using city parks. It's the micromanaging behind it and the rationale behind it."

Ann Marie Veletsos, owner of Down Dog Fitness, which offers small outdoor yoga and bootcamp-style classes, agrees.

"We're already paying a fee for six months, so I don't see why we have to pay per client per day," Veletsos said. "Other people are out there every day and they're not having to pay to use the park."

Many of the trainers say they'd like to see the money go directly back to the parks, instead of into the city's general fund, as it does now. Others say the permit process should apply to running groups, too, which are currently exempt because they don't stay at one location.

"They need to figure out a way to manage it that's fair across the board," Springmann said. "How can you implement a rule for one group and not the other? When things don't make sense like this, it gets very frustrating."

Permitted trainers can apply to hold their classes at 34 urban parks, including Auditorium Shores, Butler Park, Eilers (Deep Eddy) Park, the Long Center, Palmer Event Center, Pease Park, Zilker Park and parts of Town Lake Metropolitan Park. Other parks might be added in June.

A trainer caught using a park without a permit gets three warnings before he or she can be issued a criminal trespassing notice. "We haven't had to do that yet," says Enjole Armstrong, a contract compliance specialist for Austin's Parks and Recreation Department.

"This whole thing is based on the honor system, from getting the permit to reporting and monthly fees. We can't go out there and make sure everybody that's doing it is doing it right. We don't have staffing for that," Armstrong says.

Armstrong says money wasn't the motivation behind the permit program.

City officials and a task force of fitness professionals who came up with the new system will review and possibly tweak the program in June.

"We do understand Austin is a fit city, and we're not trying to say you cannot do it," Armstrong says. "We just need to regulate it. We have to have some way to protect the public's access."

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com or 445-3994 Twitter: @fitcityleblanc