Ben Abeleven was 29 years old and about to sign a deal to enter the emerging bouldering business. But then he stood on the roof of an ageing fitness centre in Helensburgh that was for sale, saw the million-dollar views of the city and ocean and instantly fell in love.
“It was a great community-style facility and I thought it can’t be that hard to run a gym,” he said.
Fast forward almost eight years and Ben is about to embark on the first stage of a $4.3 million transformation of the Burgh Healthy Hub.
At a ceremony on site on Thursday (28 September), Ben and wife Charlie – who he met when she was teaching at the fitness centre – were joined by Heathcote MP Maryanne Stuart and Wollongong Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery to turn the first sod ahead of the work.
“From the very beginning, I started making improvements. The building was run down and it hadn’t been marketed well, so I had a combination of improving both the business and the facility itself,” Ben said.
“When I bought it the building had seven different floor levels, seven different roof levels and steps leading everywhere to access the building.”
As an experienced arborist with no previous experience in the fitness or property industry, Ben said he was a bit out of his depth for a while.
However, he’s learned a lot in the past eight years, enough to invest more than $2 million to achieve his dream of delivering a state-of-the-art recreational space for the Helensburgh community.
The project received a substantial boost with a $2.1 million funding injection from the NSW Government’s Multi-Sport Community Facility Fund.
The first and most significant stage of the redevelopment will include the construction of a gymnasium room adjoining the current building, with fitness equipment on the first level, a purpose-built room that caters for gymnastics, aerials, circus and tumbling on the second level and green space on the roof.
The work will include a lift, accessible new amenities, bouldering facilities and a kids’ zone.
Flooring will be upgraded and a former squash court will be converted to provide an area for a quarter court for soccer and netball, allowing all-weather training facilities for local clubs for the first time.
“I’ve had a really positive response from the community, it’s great. People who have been going there since they were children are now in their 40s and know it from when it was in its heyday, when it was five squash courts, a club room, pool and sauna,” Ben said.
However, Ben said the limited population in the town meant he had to think of more specialised services to attract people from outside the immediate area, hence the bouldering space.
Bouldering is essentially rock climbing, but closer to the ground with no ropes or harnesses, and crash matting for protection. Introduced at the 2020 Olympics, bouldering practices climbing moves and problem-solving skills to move up the wall.
The second stage of Ben’s redevelopment plan will include a wellness area with a spa, cafe, indoor and outdoor seating and extended parking.
“Ultimately it will be a facility that fully services the local community, but is also business viable by attracting outsiders to more specialised offerings,” Ben said.
Ben admits his financial investment in the project is daunting and is looking for ways to attract investment from the community to help reduce the capital risk during the construction period.
The hub will offer 10 life memberships at $10,000 each and Ben hopes to attract a naming sponsor for the gymnastics room.
“Mainly if we can find support throughout campaigns it will get us to stage two quicker, which is our ultimate goal to have the entire centre completed. The simplest method to assist with this huge project is to join our facility (the 24-hour gym or kids’ programs). All profits will go towards making this happen.
“When it’s finished it will add value to the entire town of Helensburgh, including property prices – everyone will be a winner.
“Helensburgh really drew me in, I love being here and being a part of it. I think that’s what inspires me to give more to something that seems special already.
“You’re part of a community, you belong to Helensburgh, it’s just a special place.”
For more information, visit Burgh Healthy Hub.