Las Cruces Entrepreneur Helps Kids Stay Fit in the Digital Age
Originally appearing in Mesilla Valley Business Journal
A love for children led many professionals into careers working with kids. For Nancy Bates, owner of Gym Magic, that passion is fueled by an understanding of child development and an entrepreneurial spirit. She even likens the challenges a child faces on the gym floor or on the balance beam to the determination required to start a company from the ground up. “In small business,” she says, “you’re going to make mistakes. But you have to keep going. You’re going to have to have that perseverance.”
Born and raised in Alamogordo, New Mexico, Bates came to New Mexico State University as an undergraduate to study history. A work study position at Memorial Medical Center introduced her to laboratory work, which would greatly influence her studies and her career for years to come. She completed her Medical Technology Internship at the University of Iowa and then worked in hospitals in Iowa and Santa Fe before returning to Las Cruces where she obtained her Master’s Degree in cell biology and a PhD in physiology with a minor in biochemistry. She was working in a private contract lab, with a son and two daughters in gymnastics when she founded a parents’ group at the gym. She had no prior experience in gymnastics, but it was at this time that the seed for starting Gym Magic was planted.
“Parents were looking for a positive environment for their children. One that would support not only their gymnastics growth, but their emotional and psychological growth as well.” Still, Nancy Bates did not feel ready to take that plunge into the entrepreneurial world. In fact, she hoped would do it! Her love for children and the desire to embrace the “whole child” approach eventually prompted her to lease space at her first location on Picacho. Nancy opened the doors to her gym on June 1, 1993 with just a handful of teenage kids.
She still had not become a true entrepreneur in most respects. Risk averse, she approached her gym as part-time, evening venture to provide a nurturing atmosphere for the gymnasts. She and held onto her day job, working in pharmaceuticals for the FDA. Writing reports and assisting with studies soon led to more hands-on work in animal testing. “I hated that,” Nancy says. “I love animals and it was just a very difficult thing. I had worked in a hospital, and I was used to helping people. Not that I didn’t enjoy some aspects, but I found much more reward working with the kids.”
Evenings fueled Nancy Bates during this time. She found much greater personal fulfillment from the gym than in the contract lab. She took inspiration from the way her students met challenges, overcoming fears with faith not only in their coach, but in themselves. They had no immediate reward for their hard work, but had to trust that months of practice would steadily improve their skills. “Building kids from the inside,” Nancy calls it. “They were doing things that were scary. That beam is only four inches wide!”
Maybe it’s this inspiration from her students that led Nancy to cutting her lab hours to part time in order to expand her enterprise. Then, in 1996, she realized again how vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances an entrepreneur can be. Rent tripled at the Picacho location, and she found little commercial space in the area that could accommodate the gym equipment or the high ceilings required for performance. She eventually found suitable space on Compress Road and purchased land for her current location, 2341 Entrada del Sol, in 1997. If no building in town could suit her needs, then she would build her own structure, one that would be ideal for the gymnasts. To accomplish this dream, she would need a business loan. Once again, Nancy discovered that nothing in the business world comes easily.
“We were seen by lenders as discretionary,” Nancy relates, her face dropping at the remembrance of the long trial ahead. “We were a woman-owned business, catering to children, and outside their comfort zone.” She went to bank after bank for a full five years before meeting Don Panagrossi. And her face lights up again at the mention of his name.
Don Panagrossi currently serves as a loan officer for ELCDC, the Enchanted Land Certified Development Company and is the “go to” man for this firm in Las Cruces. He had just moved to the area after completing a multi-sport center in Connecticut. He met Nancy Bates, and Small Business Administration (SBA) support he helped change not only her life, but the lives of many children in the area. He helped her secure a loan, and building of today’s Gym Magic facilities began in 2003.
“Gymnastics starts out as a physical sport,” Nancy tells us. She may as well be speaking of starting your own business as of motivation for kids. “But it really gets to be a mental and emotional sport. You can have the skill and still not be able to perform. You have to establish that confidence in yourself.” Nancy embraces the whole child approach to sports, a concept she discovered while attending gymnastics conferences while she tried to keep her fledgling business alive. “It’s okay to make a mistake. You fall off the beam, you get back on the beam. It’s the very same thing as you find in small business. In small business, you’re going to make mistakes, but you have to keep going. You’re going to have to have that perseverance.”
Today, in 2012, Gym Magic has become a success not only for its proprietor, but for its students and parents who entrust Nancy and her staff with their care. Along with gymnastics, cheer, and lessons in dance and swim, Gym Magic’s own Ashley’s Garden provides preschool to 3-, 4-, and 5-year olds, a unique offering. They are distinctive in the region for providing a functioning, multi-sports center. Only a few large cities have one, and they are not found even in Albuquerque or El Paso. This is an important point for the owner, who believes that children have become too sedentary in today’s world of television and video games. “Our approach is play-based, and it’s based in integrative movement. All of the research we have done in the past few years shows that really strong connection between movement and learning.” A Title 1 grant through the Las Cruces school district now allows Gym Magic to tutor from kindergarten through sixth grade in reading and language arts. Nearly twenty local elementary school teachers have now dedicated their time to this project, and research has shown that a good 30 minutes in the gym prior to lessons has improved performance for the kids.
Never one to sit still, Nancy Bates has her eye on the future for Gym Magic and its important role in our community towards childhood learning and health. She hopes to bring in an after school program and has particular interest in serving children with disabilities. The facilities are appropriate to meet these ends. “We have open, padded spaces,” Nancy Bates says, not to mention the dedicated staff and experience to help the “whole child” meet every challenge he or she may face with love and with care. In this sense, Nancy Bates’ journey as an entrepreneur is not so different than the journey that her students each face. With love, compassion, appropriate challenges, and an approach that embraces the entire person – the whole child – we can accomplish great things.