On Sept. 1, when Ida hit Montclair, the co-owner ofThe MAX Challenge fitness center located on Valley Road watched on security cameras as water pounded her business.
The store is located in the ACME shopping center in Upper Montclair, on the lower level. The sewers located on Valley Road and Alvin Place overflowed, and the storefront windows couldn’t take the water coming down.
“The waters were so strong that the storefront windows were knocked in and everything. It became a bathtub,” Toby Bavli said. “There was 9 feet of water in the business and it went up to the ceiling. There was nowhere else for it to go. As I’m watching this, I had to just turn off the cameras and step away.”
Bavli said she felt helpless seeing her business, which she opened in 2015, being destroyed. Equipment, computers, phones and everything that Bavli had acquired over seven years were gone. She said that it wasn’t until Sept. 3, two days after the flooding, that the Montclair fire department was able to come and pump out the water from the business. Officials at the time described a massive backlog of businesses and homes throughout town suffering because of floods that overwhelmed much of Montclair.
“The next move was to figure out what to do,” Bavli said. “People were saying that FEMA was coming and they’re going to help out. And after already being destroyed by COVID and then this, I just didn’t know what to do.”
But after six months of repairs, the gym reopened on March 26. Bavli said everything in the gym is new. There are two HVAC units, new windows and brand new equipment.
Bavli said her business had lost $95,000 in equipment, which insurance didn’t cover.
“And the loss of income was close to $200,000 from having to not be able to really sell memberships until we knew a timeline to reopen the gym,” she said. “So, the loss of income and the contents of the business were close to $300,000. If I think about the number, I'll probably cry.”
Bavli said that by the end of October, she decided, along with her team, to rebuild the gym. She said she came to an agreement with her landlord. With the repairs, the gym now has widened pipes and French drains, and water pumps to control the water.
To be able to afford the repairs after the flooding, Bavli said, she had to find other locations to continue running a fitness program. She said the Kidville gymnastic center on Valley Road, and Architect Studios, a fitness center in Lackawanna Plaza, became temporary homes for MAX Challenge’s classes.
“It’s been like the traveling circus, the traveling MAX at this point,” she said. “And really just every dollar that we’ve gotten from a GoFundMe that one of our managers put up and raised $15,000 through donations, that’s all gone to new equipment and paying our staff during this time. We’ve been relying on goodwill from the community.”
Bavli said that earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, she applied for the Paycheck Protection Program as well as a separate Small Business Administration loan to keep her staff employed during that time. She said 90% of her team is still employed.
Membership also dwindled over the course of the pandemic, and needed to be rebuilt after six months of closures during statewide restrictions on businesses. Bavli said that before the pandemic, the gym had 610 members, which she described as a pretty good number for a gym. During the closures, membership dropped to 290.
“A lot of gyms went out of business during that time, but we held on. We cut back on things where we could. So, we stayed open. Our membership grew from 290 to 450. And that was right before Ida,” she said. “So, we were just crawling back up and Ida again brought us back down to 290. Now that we’re out there and telling people we’re open again, we’ve gotten about 50 more people to join. So right now, we’re probably 343.”
Bavli said the township has been instrumental in getting her business reopened, in particular Councilman Peter Yacobellis and Deputy Mayor William Hurlock. She said after she published the pictures of the gym’s flooding on social media, Yacobellis reached out to her and told her about other grants she could apply for. Township officials were quick to help her with any issues as they came up, such as getting permits for contractors approved quickly, she said.
Council members helped connect her with grants that helped support rent and other business needs. The Upper Montclair Business Association offered support as well, asking businesses what they needed, she said.
“They saw that we were a struggling business so that was pretty amazing,” she said.
Bavli said she is thankful for her team, especially during the times she wanted to quit and her team gave her their support. And she said she is thankful for the community that donated money, or just shared her story in social media, to bring awareness.
“We are going to get the community back together. We’re going to help people live healthier, happier lives, in our own home now,” Bavli said. “I can’t thank the people who helped enough. The people who let us run our classes in their studios. The people who shared the GoFundMe link. They didn’t have to donate; they just shared it to raise awareness. I was never asking for a handout. It was always like, ‘Just share it to tell somebody this is what’s happening on the other side of business.’ So, be kind to the people who are in service during this whole time.”
The gym is open weekdays from 5 a.m. with classes every hour until 8:30 p.m. Bavli said she is hoping to add two more classes once she finds a teacher who can run group classes. Anyone interested can contact her at 973-922-3629.