By Lydia Wheeler
James Ramsey is in the business of buoyancy.
With financial backing from his brother, he opened Float First, a flotation spa with two flotation tanks, off Eden Way in Chesapeake in July 2011.
Float First's fiberglass tanks, also known as i-sopods, are filled with about 10 inches of highly concentrated salt water - 1,200 pounds of Epsom salt to 300 gallons of water. Heated to body temperature, the solution makes the body buoyant, allowing the customer to float freely on the surface.
"The water is more dense than the Dead Sea," Ramsey said. "Within a few minutes of floating, you no longer feel the water. It tricks the body into feeling weightlessness."
In addition to relaxation, flotation is said to relieve stress, muscle and joint pain, and arthritis; detox the body and strengthen the immune system; treat PTSD, insomnia and chemical addictions; and enhance creativity, as well as cognitive learning abilities. Hour-long sessions are recommended.
With the help of the Manufacturing Extension Program through the Old Dominion University Business Gateway, Ramsey is looking to capitalize on the pod's popularity and perceived health benefits. He is in the process of opening a manufacturing facility in Norfolk to fabricate his owns i-sopods. The Norfolk Development Department found him 5,500 square feet of industrial space at 2409 Bowdens Ferry Road near ODU.
"When James came here, he didn't know anything about manufacturing or how to set up a facility," said Jerry Robertson, executive director of the Business Gateway. "We are contracting with him to get his plant set up."
Because the Manufacturing Expansion Program is heavily subsidized, Robertson said Ramsey will owe the gateway only $60,000 for work that would have cost him $200,000 or more if privately contracted.
Through the Norfolk Disadvantaged Business Assistance Grant Program, Ramsey is also eligible for reimbursement up to $4,500 through the Norfolk Economic Development Authority.
For Float First, Ramsey purchased the tanks - 8.5 feet long by 5.5 feet wide - for a little over $30,000 apiece from Floatworks, a London-based manufacturer.
An hour-long float session costs $79 for nonmembers, and between the two tanks, Ramsey can book 14 to 16 appointments a day
According to Flotation.com, Ramsey will have four manufacturing competitors in the United States - Samadhi Tank Co. Inc. in Nevada City, Calif.; Oasis Relaxation Systems, in San Diego, Calif.; Float Lab Technologies in Venice Beach, Calif.; and High-Tech Floatation, in Penndel, Pa.
He plans to price his pods around $20,000 and though similarly designed, Ramsey said his pods will address audio and timing control issues he has encountered using Floatworks' i-sopods.
Until Dream Float Spa opened in the Hilltop East Shopping Center last month, Float First was the area's sole flotation center.
Leslie Luttrell owns the Hilltop spa with her husband, though she would not give his name due to his position in the Navy.
"My husband did a research study for brain health while in Dallas and after his first experience floating, he said, 'We need to open a business,'" she said.
Dream Float Spa has three i-sopods, and like Float First, the tanks were purchased from Floatworks, but unlike its competitor, the Dream Float Spa offers both 30- and 60-minute sessions.
Introduced in laboratories in the 1950s, flotation tanks didn't come on the scene until the late 1970s and grow in popularity until the early 1980s. Their rapid decline in the mid-80s is believed to have been the result of the AIDS epidemic and people's fear of communal water at that time, according to Float On, a West Coast float center's website.
After each use, Ramsey assures the water is drained and filtered a minimum of four times before the next use. The water is also treated with a small amount of chlorine.
Flotation tanks have regained popularity in the last few years and the military seems to be buying into the benefits of weightless relaxation this time around.
Robertson said the Navy SEALs bought flotation tanks for the Dam Neck base and use them regularly.
"The Navy SEALs have found it has the benefit of clearing your mind completely and they can learn things faster after floating in these tanks," he said.
Robertson said the SEALs are using the tanks to learn additional languages at a faster pace in order to better converse in the Middle East.
Though the Navy said it did not have any information regarding the flotation tanks, a spokeswoman did say such a purchase could have been made by a secret command on base.
Before opening Float First, Ramsey, 36, was a part of various family businesses including Ramsey Enterprises, which owns 80 to 90 rental units throughout Hampton Roads; Ramsey Restaurant Group, which owns and operates Copeland's Hot Dogs, a diner on Deep Creek Boulevard in Portsmouth; and a group home for those with mental handicaps that he helped his father run in Chesapeake.
Though he still has stake in those family operations, Ramsey is focused on floating.
He already has pre-orders for i-sopods and hopes to have his manufacturing facility fully functioning within a few months.
Besides making his owns tanks, Ramsey wants to open additional Float First spa locations in Hampton Roads, D.C., New York, Boston, Raleigh, Durham and Florida.