COVER- It's Wendel's world: We just work out in it

There are 12,000 members walking among us. Their charismatic leader has a plan for their lives, but the gospel he preaches isn't fire and brimstone; it's life everlasting– or almost. Health and happiness, he says, are available to anyone who joins him, but he's not demanding that his followers drink the Kool-Aid– in fact, he'd much rather they drink water... and lots of it. 

On a recent afternoon in his tucked away, light-filled office behind the Carmike Cinema on 29 North, that leader, Phil Wendel, expounds on his vision– and his dreams of even more conversions. 

"I want to find the uninitiated believers," says the founder and owner of the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club, which has infiltrated almost every aspect of Charlottesville life, from health to education to socializing. "Those are the people who go to bed saying, 'I know I should weigh 20 pounds less.'"

Since opening his first location in 1984, Wendel, now a grandfather– and a very fit one at that– has expanded his fitness company to include exercise classes, swimming pools, basketball courts, physical therapy, spa services, even childcare at its Albemarle Square, downtown, and Adventure Central locations. And that's just the tip of the ACAC iceberg.

 Over the past eight years– since the flagship location opened inside the former Best Products store at Albemarle Square in 1998– ACAC has steadily broadened its offerings. The 64,000 square-foot Albemarle Square club wows with a sunken full basketball court surrounded by an indoor track and a suspended mezzanine featuring a variety of cardio equipment. In addition to two large group-exercise rooms, the club has also made "mind/body" classes a priority with dedicated yoga studios and a Pilates room. Now the company is setting its sights on expanding its downtown market.

Today, ACAC downtown operates out of a 10,000-square-foot gym on the ground floor of the Water Street parking garage. This fall, that club will close, and downtown exercisers will finally get to check out Wendel's latest: a $6 million, 40,000-square-foot facility just south of the CSX train tracks in the former Ivy Industries picture frame factory. 

Replete with squash courts, yoga studios, Pilates rooms, and indoor pools in addition to the traditional exercise equipment and classes, the new club will anchor a mixed-use complex that includes retail space and three phases of condos, some actually in the same building as ACAC. Ads on the bulletin board in the downtown facility tout the benefits of living at the health club!

Wendel's partner in the development, music mogul Coran Capshaw, credits Wendel's vision and says the new ACAC club "will be a catalyst for spreading the success and energy of the Downtown Mall across the tracks."

But in his relentless pursuit of converts, is Wendel indirectly dooming other businesses? Some parents couldn't help but notice when the Berkmar Drive business long known as Planet Fun closed its batting cages, climbing gyms, and bumper boats last fall. All of a sudden, elementary school kids' birthday parties seemed to shift to ACAC Adventure Central, which debuted "The Arena," a $2.2 million sports expansion, around that time.

Yet Susanna Nicholson, owner of Union Yoga in the Martha Jefferson Outpatient Care Center on Pantops mountain, says that while ACAC's downtown expansion will undoubtedly affect smaller area businesses, it won't necessarily harm them.

"It's forced all of us to refine our vision of what makes our teaching special and unique," says Nicholson. For instance, she says she has narrowed her focus almost entirely to therapeutic yoga, geared to helping people work through physical or psychological problems. Her location within Martha Jefferson's Outpatient Care Center, she says, has helped cement her niche. Other studios may decide to leave downtown and head for areas like Crozet, she predicts, where they can draw from a different demographic. 

Another small downtown business takes the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach.

"I think it's great for downtown," says Kate Nesbit, owner of Pilates VA on Second Street. Nesbit teaches classes in her own space– but she also teaches Pilates at ACAC, something that allows her to reach greater numbers. "It works really well," she says.

Yoga and Pilates are hardly the only areas of ACAC expansion. In the fall, school bells will ring at Adventure Central as the Charlottesville Day School opens on Four Seasons Drive. A new arena and huge pool complex already host summer camp and after-school programs at the site of the club's very first location.

In 2007 ACAC plans to open a Lynchburg club to join existing branches in Richmond, Baltimore, and Chester, Pennsylvania. In the more distant future, Wendel says, the club may open "satellite locations" in far-flung places like Crozet, and will likely team with Martha Jefferson Hospital to open a facility on Pantops. 

Indeed, ACAC's relationship with the medical profession is already well established. Using a creative form of marketing, the company has developed a program in which area doctors prescribe ACAC to their patients. 

In what Wendel calls a "win-win situation," the program, called "60/60," offers a two-month membership and several sessions with a personal trainer for $60, a steep discount from the club's usual fees.  ACAC reaches potential new members, and neophyte exercisers learn the basics of fitness safely. Doctors say they like the program because they know their patients are being supervised as they begin their exercise program. 

"They do an outstanding job," says Dr. William Maloney of Downtown Family Health Care on Second Street, who estimates he's sent 50 patients to ACAC on the 60/60 program. "It's a great way to introduce people to exercise," he adds.

With physical therapy and nutrition services, a full day spa, swimming pools, and team sports, social events, childcare, and outdoor adventures in addition to the 60/60 program, it's hard to say what niche Wendel and his ACAC team of nearly 90 full-timers don't– or won't soon– fill.


Wendel didn't set out to build a fitness empire. In fact, for nearly 30 years he worked in the travel industry as founder of school trip biz Lakeland Tours, a company he started as a public school teacher in Chicago.

After leading a group of eighth graders on a trip to Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s, Wendel, says he realized he could do a better job, and the following year, he organized the trip himself. "I had $1,000 in my pocket," he says, "but even when I was dirt poor, I knew what good service is and what it isn't."

Wendel moved Lakeland  to Charlottesville in 1979. But in the meantime, he was drawn to another growing field.  In 1984, he opened ACAC's first small location at Four Seasons, where it remained for 14 years. By the early 1990s, Wendel was employing grad students in a then-new field, exercise physiology. Soon after, Wendel says, he had "this entrepreneurial 'a-ha'" when he realized just how huge the market for health clubs could be.

"I learned in the mid-'90s that maybe 1/6 of Americans were active," he says. "Four times as many people go to bed saying, 'I'm ready'" as actually work out. Having watched Lakeland grow from one to 100 employees over 27 years, and seeing the company take 100,000 junior high students to D.C. each year, Wendel sold the company to Worldstrides in 1998 and made ACAC his prime focus by opening the Albemarle Square location– a move he calls a big investment and "a leap of faith."

Since then, between that location, the new downtown club, the Adventure Central location, and various other projects, Wendel says, the company has invested $22 million in and around Charlottesville. 

The secret to his success, he says, is his three-pronged philosophy: "Render to the customer a first-class service experience; want everyone who works for you to want to stay for life– which means paying higher-than-industry standards; and operate the business in a way that affords investors an acceptable return."

While the last prong obviously puts money in his own pocket, sole-owner Wendel says the pleasure he takes from work is not about getting rich.

"I wanted to be in a business where people really do matter," he says.


Those who work with Wendel say he delivers just what he promises.

"The company motto is 'We change lives,'" says Doug Wanamaker, who joined ACAC as a piano teacher in 2001 and now serves as operations manager at Adventure Central. There he oversees the after-school program and the summer camp, which combined serve more than 500 area children throughout the year. 

"There's a lot of encouragement to expand on your interests," says Wanamaker, who was once the keyboardist for local band Indecision. "I expressed that I was interested in getting involved in front desk work," he says. "They'll put you in where your interest is."

Stacey Bruns also credits Wendel with unusual support.

As director of the new Charlottesville Day School, which will open this fall for pre-schoolers through second grade,  Bruns has teamed with ACAC to create an environment focused on academics and total wellness.

While the school is an independent entity simply leasing space at ACAC's Adventure Central location, the partnership, Bruns says, "allows me to put all my dreams on paper and actually get them going on the first day of school."

Wendel, she says, is "someone who likes people who have a vision. If he believes in your vision and believes it's good for the Charlottesville-Albemarle community, he's extremely supportive."

Indeed, Wendel is known for his contributions– both of money and time. He created an exercise program for seniors eight years ago while his mother was in an assisted living center. There he met Roxann Critzer, a nurse who was caring for his mother, and whom he later married. 

At his home in northern Albemarle county, Wendel has hosted a black-tie fundraiser to benefit the SPCA, and he's generous with political contributions as well. In 2004, he and Critzer donated a combined $50,000 to George W. Bush's re-election effort, according to website

But though Wendel is politically active and a sponsor of a variety of local events, the biggest part of ACAC's future, it seems, is in its collaboration with health practitioners. For several years, Martha Jefferson Hospital's cardiac rehab program was located in the Albemarle Square location. The program moved to Pantops when the hospital's new outpatient care center opened, says Ron Cottrell, Martha Jefferson's vice president of development, but the hospital now offers physical therapy services at the club. 

In the future, both Wendel and Cottrell say, the two will coordinate programs even more closely with a new ACAC location at Pantops. Wendel envisions creating specific workouts for every type of disease or condition– the diabetes workout, the cancer workout, the menopause workout. Such health problems may be bad for people, but fixing them can be good for business.

"Rising healthcare costs," Wendel says, "are the 'perfect storm' for our industry." 

Partnership with Wendel has been a success "because there's a great cultural fit," says Cottrell. "We both cherish good health. We can take care of folks when they're sick, and Phil can help maintain their health."


Good health, customer service, diverse programming– what's not to like? Well, for some, it's the high cost– at about $80 per month, an individual membership at ACAC is nearly double the cost at Gold's Gym or New Fitness for Ladies. Tack on a $150 initiation fee, and ACAC soars out of the price range of many people– even those who'd love to join.

Jennifer Perkins is one. At 28, Perkins is participating in the 60/60 program, ordered by her doctor. But with her two-month temporary membership about to expire, Perkins says, she'll be unable to continue despite her desire to lose more weight. 

 "It's been awesome," she says. "It helps you get into a routine and a habit of going to the gym. I've seen results, and I'm definitely feeling better. You can talk to the staff about anything; they teach you and have really good advice."

But once her 60/60 program ends, Perkins– a medical assistant– won't be back. 

"I'm a single mom, I have four kids, I live in public housing," she says, wondering whether the club would ever offer a "fitness scholarship" or some other kind of financial aid for people like her.

"It would be really nice if they did something like that," she says, acknowledging that other clubs would be no more affordable for her once she adds in the extra cost for childcare.

Wendel says he's interested in making fitness accessible to people in all income levels, but he says the price reflects his desire to retain top employees and maintain state-of-the-art facilities. "As a business person, I have to cover those costs somehow," he says.

Just giving people the basics of wellness, he says, can allow them to be more active even at home through things like walking and understanding proper nutrition– things that don't cost any money.

Wendel– who declines to reveal his age– says he practices what he preaches, working out "350 days a year," including lifting weights four to five times a week, doing two hours a week of cardio, and playing basketball once a week.

And though some people his age are considering retirement, Wendel says he has no such plans.

"I'll keep working as long as I'm continuing to have fun," he says.

And, one might imagine, as long as there are "uninitiated believers" to convert.

Phil Wendel lays one up at the Albemarle Square b-ball courts.

Believe it or not, this used to be a Best Products showroom – now it's ACAC's pool at Albemarle Square

ACAC Albemarle Square

ACAC's new downtown location

Charlottesville Day School

Martha Jefferson Hospital, Pantops

Adventure Central

Fit for a king: ACAC's Charlottesville fiefdom

The newest location in the ACAC empire, the $6 million downtown facility will comprise nearly 40,000 square feet– the size of a football field– when it opens in the fall. Studio and rooftop yoga classes, Pilates, and spinning are among the group exercise offerings, and the downtown club will have squash courts to balance out the basketball courts at Albemarle Square. The downtown facility will also offer physical therapy, childcare, and a day spa, as well as a rooftop pool. "We're trying to offer everything we can," says ACAC's Grant Gamble, who's overseeing the project. 

ACAC Albemarle Square

Albemarle Square


After ACAC operated for 14 years in a small location on Four Seasons Drive, the flagship location opened in 1998 with a 64,000-square-foot facility. In addition to extensive cardio machines and weights, the facility includes an indoor track, basketball courts, three indoor pools, large group exercise rooms, Pilates, nutrition counseling, a full day spa, and a Kid Zone with mini-basketball court and climbing wall for older kids and indoor climbing tubes for tots. ACAC owner Phil Wendel says future expansions will not mean letting the flagship flag.

"You don't want to abandon the mothership," he says.

Charlottesville Day School

Stacey Bruns (above)


While the Charlottesville Day School is under the ACAC umbrella and will be housed at ACAC's Adventure Central location on Four Seasons Drive, head of school Stacey Bruns says the board of the school is made up of UVA Curry School educators– not exercisers. The private school will start its first year with seven full-time teachers, five teaching assistants, and approximately 85 students ranging from two-year-old preschoolers to second graders. The school will expand to fifth grade in the next couple of years, and, Bruns hopes, eventually to eighth grade. ACAC founder Phil Wendel supported the idea of the school, Bruns says, because "We're going to educate the whole child."

Adventure Central

Adventure Central

With a three-pool water park complete with slides, fountains, and a huge floating crocodile, classrooms, indoor playstructures, tennis courts, and a new $2.2 million arena for indoor sports, Adventure Central is home to summer camp, an after-school program, birthday parties, and now the Charlottesville Day School. The after-school program serves approximately 250 children throughout the year, and ACAC provides transportation from certain county schools. For an extra fee, kids can take specialized classes including dance, yoga, music lessons or be tutored. Older kids can take part in personal training or have physical therapy for injuries, says Doug Wanamaker, director of operations at Adventure Central. And in what may be the most alluring offering for working parents, even most snow days and holidays are covered. "Throughout the Christmas break, spring break, 362 days of the year, we have something going on for children," says Wanamaker.

Martha Jefferson Hospital, Pantops

Martha Jefferson Hospital, Pantops


When Martha Jefferson Hospital moves to Pantops in 2012, ACAC will likely have a presence. "Teaming with ACAC is a concept we want to pursue," says Ron Cottrell, Martha Jefferson's vice president of planning. "We're involved in planning at this stage of the game, trying to understand how the demographics are going to change in our community, and what facility requirements we'll have to have to meet those demographic changes." 

1 comment