WHEATFIELD – Jacob’s Ladder, a maker of fitness equipment for health clubs and homes, is planning to move from rented space in North Tonawanda to a vacant building in Wheatfield, the company’s owner told the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency board Wednesday.
Robert A. Palka Jr. applied to the agency for a 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, arrangement on the former Motorad plant on Walmore Road in Wheatfield. The planned $1.1 million acquisition and renovation of the property will lead to the creation of 10 new jobs on top of the 15 the company already employs, according to the application.
IDA Director of Project Development Susan C. Langdon said, “Jacob’s Ladder is a patented cardio machine for health clubs and training athletes.”
It was invented and patented in 1994 by Steve Nichols of Hamburg, a fitness aficionado who worked in construction.
“He knew climbing a ladder was a good workout,” Palka told the board.
But Nichols’ efforts to build a business foundered. Palka said Nichols, who still works for the company as an engineer, “drove it cash-dry twice.” He was unable to set up a network of service sites. When Palka heard about the machine in 2004, “It was just sitting in a 10-by-10 storage facility in Hamburg.”
Palka, a former engineer, purchasing manager and supplier development manager at the Lockport Delphi plant, was seeking to buy a business, and one of the people he contacted steered him to Nichols. After a workout on the Jacob’s Ladder machine, Palka became a believer as well as the 100 percent owner.
He set up shop in 6,000 square feet of rented space in the old Wurlitzer plant in North Tonawanda, where the company remains today.
“The first five years were hell. Went close to going bankrupt,” Palka said.
But rescue arrived in the form of “The Biggest Loser,” the NBC reality weight-loss show, which in 2009 acquired a couple of the units and used them on the show.
“You can’t pay for that type of exposure,” Palka said.
Now the company has three different models, priced from $3,195 to $4,495, and sells about 1,500 units a year through a network of as many as 90 dealers. The machines have been used in training by the Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, hockey’s Pittsburgh Penguins and baseball’s Cleveland Indians, Palka said.
“We cut and drill our own steel and fabricate our own frames. We have four or five welders,” Palka said.
After a failed attempt to convert the former AMVETS post in North Tonawanda into a factory, Palka discovered the 35,000-square-foot Motorad plant, vacant for about two years. Jacob’s Ladder is applying for a $150,000 loan from the Niagara Economic Development Fund, which is financed by the New York Power Authority, and will carry a $760,000 mortgage on the new plant.
Palka said the goal is to open at the Wheatfield site by March. The IDA will schedule a public hearing on the deal and is expected to vote on it Dec. 9.
The IDA staff estimated that the company will save $421,160 on the tax breaks, but Langdon said the cost-benefit analysis favors the benefits by a ratio of 4.1 to 1.