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4/11/2004

Bearing down

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Options for a clean and safe environment for mothers and other caregivers to bring their kids to are about to become one fewer in Longmont.

On the heels of The Little Gym’s closure a couple of months ago, the owner of Sammy Bear Activity Center has announced it will close at the end of this month, following an unsuccessful attempt to sell the stand-alone business.

“There’s been tons of interest, but I think it’s interest from mothers like myself who didn’t want to see it close, but then I think they realize it’s a huge undertaking, and most of them have one or two kids,” said Kelli Epstein, who had bought 2-year-old Sammy Bear just last September.

Epstein said her primary motivation for selling — or, failing that, closing — the business is that she is due to have her second baby in early May.

“We found out the day we bought it I was pregnant with my second,” said Epstein, who bought the business with her husband.

Sammy Bear is unusual in a couple of ways. First, it’s not a franchise, unlike The Little Gym or Boulder’s Gymboree. Second, it specialized in “open play time,” meaning mothers or other caregivers could drop in anytime with their kids and let them play while they relaxed and chatted with the other grown-ups.

The business caters to both members — currently there are more than 200 belonging to Sammy Bear’s “Kid’s Club,” Epstein said — and drop-ins.

“We get at least 50 new drop-ins every month,” she said.

Lisa Barton has been a member of the Kid’s Club since shortly after Sammy Bear’s opened in early 2002. While she also takes her two young girls to other activities in town, such as Kindermusic, Barton said when Sammy Bear closes she will miss the camaraderie she enjoyed with other mothers.

“You’d run into new people there and meet new friends, and the same for the kids,” said Barton. “It was a safe place to take your kids. They had a special room — a side room — where mothers could go to talk and know their kids were confined.”

Epstein said Barton’s reaction to the news of Sammy Bear’s closing has been typical.

“I had one woman come in today who said when she read the e-mail (announcing the closing, and) she felt like crying,” Epstein said. “There’s a core group of people who are pretty devastated by the loss of this facility. There’s just nothing else like it.”

Epstein said given the demographics of the community, she was surprised about the lack of serious interest in buying her place.

The 2000 U.S. Census found that about 6 percent of Boulder County’s population is under 5 years old, and in Longmont that percentage is closer to 8.3 percent.

So where will Barton and her friends go now?

“We’ve actually spoken on the phone a few times, talking about what we’re going to do when the summer heat hits,” she said. “We’ve really just decided to trade off at each other’s houses.

But, she notes, “At Sammy Bear’s, you didn’t have to worry about how clean your house is.”

Perhaps they’ll drive to Lafayette’s Kangaroo Kingdom. Owner Kirstie Reichers opened her business in 2001, just months before the terrorist attacks brought a devastating blow to a local economy already crippled by the implosion in the high-tech and telecom industries.

“I had been in the professional world for a while, working in corporate, but I had always been child-focused, and as soon as I had my own kids I had decided to find my own place,” said
Reichers.

While she describes the past three years as “tough,” she has been able to make a go of it, even even picking up some national recognition from Child Magazine and Parenting Magazine.

Offering children’s classes, after-school programs, parenting classes and birthday parties, Reichers has built the business around a wide range of programs and activities and a solid reputation she has developed throughout the northern metro area.

It’s not been easy. Advertising is a huge expense, she said, more than she expected. Then there’s the cost of renting 1,500 square feet in Lafayette. And, the local economy is still such that she has to be mindful of keeping her rates down.

“On the East Coast, the classes are double what mine are and their rent is less,” Reichers said.

Kristy Fraley has had her Gymboree franchise in Boulder for sale for a couple of months now.

While she said she is selling for personal reasons, Fraley said Sept. 11, 2001, almost broke her business.

“I’ve run this business for five years, and I was booming,” said Fraley. “As soon as 9-11 happened, I lost so much business because the economy just tanked in Boulder County.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted in the drop in my enrollment. I didn’t just lose a little — I dropped to a fourth of my enrollment.”

Business has slowly come back since then, she said, but added that interest in buying the franchise has been slow, due, she thinks, to the economy.

Boulder’s Collage Children’s Museum closed a couple of years ago. Louisville’s WOW museum is still open, although it recently switched to non-profit status to keep its doors open. Soon, Longmont mothers will lose Sammy Bear as a clean, safe and inexpensive place to take their kids.

It was four years ago next month that Longmont’s Fit for Fun shut its doors. And many locals still lament the loss of Monkey Around, which was open for a brief stretch in the mid-’90s in the Kmart shopping center on North Main Street.

Cheri Busch, a co-owner of Monkey Around who currently works for the Daily Times-Call, said she and her partner didn’t shut their doors for lack of business.

“We had a great following,” Busch said. “I still, to this day, have people ask when we’re going to open again, and it’s not going to happen.”

Though there are places for Longmont’s little kids — the new recreation center and the re-vamped YMCA, to mention only two — the demise of The Little Gym and Sammy Bear will make things just a little tougher on mothers and others who are trying to keep things interesting for our youngest residents.

And Busch has some words of advice for those who think buying Sammy Bear might be just the thing for them: “It’s hard to go into business. It’s costly, and you give up your life.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.