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Teton Parks and Recreation Department Recreation Center Expansion Climbing Gym: Insights and Takeaways

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The Teton Rock Gym, Jackson’s first climbing facility, opened in 1993 with ca. 2,500 square feet of climbing space. It closed in 2007 when The Enclosure Climbing Gym, a 10,000-square foot facility owned and operated by Andy Laakmann, opened its doors. 

The Enclosure closed in 2014. At the time of its close, the gym had 700 members, generated $500-700k/year in revenue and had 50-100 people in the facility at any given time. Given the increase in Teton County population and in climbing’s popularity, demand today is higher than it was ten years ago.

Since The Enclosure closed, no private-market solutions for a climbing gym have emerged. This is a function of two factors: the high cost of Jackson real estate, and a population base too small (23,081 in 2019) to make a climbing gym economically viable.

In the November 2019 election, Teton County voters approved $22,000,000, via the SPET initiative’s Proposition #9, for “Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center Expansion and Renovation, Community Climbing Gym, King Street Extension, and Stormwater Treatment.”

Given the realities of the Jackson Hole market, it should be assumed that the rec center gym, once complete, will preclude the development of a private market gym in the future. For this reason, the development of the rec center gym should be as intentional as possible, for the sake of this and future generations.

The Teton Climbers’ Coalition has come together to celebrate the past, present and future of Teton climbing. We have conducted more than 70 hours of research on climbing facilities around the country, identifying best practices and attributes that will ensure the climbing gym meets our community’s needs.

The development of a public climbing gym as part of the Teton County Parks and Recreation Department Rec Center expansion presents a singular opportunity to create a dynamic facility that meets a significant public need, fosters a sense of community and honors the legacy of Teton climbing, all at the same time.

In order for that to occur, the gym’s development should take into consideration our community’s needs as well as industry best practices and trends, which our research has done.

The following distillation of our research included input from the following:

An executive summary of consultation notes may be found here. A full overview of takeaways may be found here.

Key Observations

  • The 5,750 square feet allocated for the rec center gym is too small. The Enclosure Climbing Gym had 10,000 square feet of climbing space. When it closed in 2014, it had 700 members and up to 50-100 people in the facility at any given time.
    • Canada’s premier mountaineering town, Canmore, has a population of 13,992. Its gym, Elevation Place, which opened in 2013 as part of the community’s rec center, offers 11,000 square feet of climbing surface. Because it’s in a community center, Elevation Place has thousands of members. 
      • “We should have made our gym bigger because there’s always a wait list,” said Brian Spear, the Climbing Coordinator for the Town of Canmore.  “It’s too busy for a positive experience, so we make them wait. People who work M-F 9-5 are always on the waitlist.”
    • 5,750 square feet of space for a climbing gym in Teton County will create “a negative user experience.”
      • According to JB Graham, Director of Sales, Vertical Solutions: “10,000-12,000 sq ft: given… the sort of Jackson tourist traffic you’d expect in the gym, this would create a better user experience.”
  • Climbing’s popularity is exploding. As a result, climbing gyms are now more popular than fitness facilities.
    • From 2012-2017, the growth of the indoor climbing wall industry was 39% greater than that of the gym, health, and fitness clubs industry over the same period. In the last couple of years, the debut of films like The Dawn Wall and the Oscar-Award winning Free Solo has accelerated that growth
    • Climbing will make its debut in the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. According to the industry research company IBIS, this “is anticipated to accelerate interest in climbing, driving demand for indoor climbing wall operators.”
    • When Bob Richards, the Founding Principle of Climbing Wall Advisors, asks people why they climb, “Invariably, nobody says ‘to get fit.’ They say, ‘it’s fun.’ With health clubs, ‘guilt’ is the word that comes up more than any other. “That isn’t the motivation/mentality in a climbing gym. People are there to have fun.”
  • Climbing is social.
    • “Climbing just happens to be a great paradigm for hanging out with your friends,” says Richards. “You can’t do endless boulder problems. You have to rest. It’s a different motivation than fitness activities.”
    • Rich Johnston, President of Vertical World, Inc., notes, “If you look at any gym in any given moment, 75% of people are just hanging out. It’s social.”
    • JB Graham agrees. “Climbing is a community thing,” he says.
  • Social is healthy.
    • The Centers for Disease Control notes that more than 40% of Americans are now obese, creating an estimated annual medical cost of $147 billion. Any physical activity that can help address poor health outcomes is valuable.
    • A 2018 national survey by Cigna reported that loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. 
    • A meta-analysis, co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, reports “loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”
  • Climbing offers participants greater health benefits over a longer period of time than traditional “ball sports”. 
    • With ball sports such as basketball, football and soccer, most participants tend to begin in their youth and continue active enagement in their teens and twenties. As physical abilities decline, so, too, does active participation, resulting in less active “spectator” engagement.
    • Similar to other human-powered recreational activities such as hiking and skiing, climbing is a physical pursuit that participants often enjoy over the course of a lifetime. As a result, climbing gyms address physical health disparities and social isolation and loneliness better than traditional sports by engaging participants in a pursuit they can enjoy for multiple decades.
  • Climbing gyms are family friendly. 
    • Parents and kids can participate together, creating a bonding experience that can last a lifetime.
    • Rich Johnston: “This morning a member called me. Has a daughter who just got into climbing. He said, you know, we do all sorts of sports. I can sit in the bleachers and watch her play soccer. It’s not engaging. Climbing is the best family thing we’ve done.”
    • “It’s very, very family oriented. There are very few spots where the parents can hang out with their kids and do the sport together. It has an amazing impact on the family dynamic. I hear that all the time.”
    • Children who begin climbing improve rapidly, often outclimbing their parents within a few years of starting.
  • Climbing gyms create safe, healthy venues for kids. 
    • A climbing gym that’s open after school, on the weekends and during times, such as summers, when schools are closed, can provide youth with a trouble-free, positive “entertainment” option with inherent, long-lasting health benefits.
    • A good gym will connect kids to positive role models and to a lifestyle pathway that’s congruent with Jackson’s mountain legacy and traditions. 
  • A good climbing gym that engages the whole community can help change the cultural narrative for Jackson’s Latino population.
    • The climbing gym can serve as a catalyst to better connect with and understand our large immigrant Latino population. The boundaries of racial/cultural separation disappear once the rope is shared.
    • Our Latino community deserves to share in our outdoor adventures, our stories, and the transcendent power of the outdoors, which can open doors to the creation of future community leaders and stewards.
  • Key to community engagement is enough space.
    • Community space is one of the most important considerations for a gym. The best gyms design the climbing experience around the social experience. 
    • Open designs yield the best community/social experience, as well as better route-setting access and better flow.
    • A well-designed gym that incorporates community space can use the space for events, film screenings, music, art, and other community gatherings.
  • Climbing gyms offer better ROI than fitness studios.
    • “Per square foot, you’ll probably have more people [in a climbing gym] than in any other facility in the rec center,” says Richards.
    • “Basketball courts, etc: they’re expensive. Not many people per square foot. The ROI is a lot higher with climbing gyms.”
    • As a result, “Some places are taking out their racquetball courts and putting bouldering gyms in.”
  • A climbing gym can generate revenue that can support other Parks and Recreation programs and amenities.
    • The Enclosure Climbing Gym generated $500,000-700,000/year in revenue
    • Canmore’s Elevation Place community climbing center generates $100,000 in shoe and harness rentals alone
  • Climbing gyms enhance safety for guides, rangers, Search and Rescue and regular climbers alike.
    • A well-designed gym provides guides, climbing rangers and search and rescue team members with a place to practice techniques and rescue scenarios
    • Beginning climbers can learn the skills and techniques necessary for safe adventures in the crags and mountains

Research Takeaways

Consultation:

  • Independent (i.e., with no vested interest in the contract to build the climbing walls themselves) climbing gym consultants should be retained as early as possible to create positive user experience, optimize ROI, minimize cost overruns and delays and ensure the gym meets current and future community needs
  • Jaime Logan, Principal, J Logan Architects, climbing gym industry expert Chris Danielson, Rich Johnston, President, Vertical World, Inc. and Bob Richards, Founding Principle, Climbing Wall Advisors, emerged as some of the recommended consultants

Architectural design:

  • Creating a positive user experience should be one of the highest design priorities. (“As an operator, I would be completely focused on it.”)
  • Climbing wall builder and facility builder should begin working together as soon as possible to ensure a similar range of flexibility in the case of seismic or wind events and to minimize costs and delays
  • Design should address the big-picture questions first—where the climbing gym goes in relation to other parts of the larger building, where the essential non-climbing gym spaces (e.g., bathrooms, hold room, gym check-in and staff offices) will go. The answers to these questions will determine answers to other, more technical questions, which can be decided later on

Community Space:

  • Community space is one of the most important considerations for a gym. The best gyms design the climbing experience around the social experience. (“If you look at any gym in any moment, 75% of people are just hanging out. It’s social.)
  • Design for community—specifically, for how climbers experience community while climbing
  • Open designs yield the best community/social experience, as well as better route-setting access and better flow. 

Community Engagement:

  • Gym should provide a safe, healthy venue for local youth that’s open after school, on the weekends and during times, such as summers, when schools are closed, connecting them with positive role models and a lifestyle pathway that’s congruent with Jackson’s mountain legacy and traditions
  • To better serve Jackson’s Latino community, and to ensure the climbing gym is accessible to a diversity of residents, climbing gym staff should participate in regular and mandatory Diversity, Equity, Inclusion trainings. 
    • Efforts should be made to retain Latinx staff to engage the Jackson Hole Latino community
    • Learn-to-climb classes and organized kids’ programs should be offered in English and Spanish, with the latter provided by Latinx instructors
  • Parks and Rec and the climbing community should liaise regularly to ensure positive community engagement, coordination with other climbing-related events and activities (e.g., Town Pump, film screenings etc.)

Size:

  • The Enclosure Climbing Gym had 10,000 sq. ft. of climbing space. When it closed, it had 700 members and 50-100 people in the facility at any given time.
  • Climbing’s popularity and Jackson’s tourist traffic will add to demand and create a user base that is larger than Teton County’s population base
  • Canmore’s community climbing facility has 11,000 sq. ft. of climbing surface. Because it’s in a community center, it has 1000s of members. 
    • “We should have made our gym bigger because there’s always a wait list. It’s too busy for a positive experience so we make them wait”
    • “People who work M-F 9-5 are always on the wait list.”
  • A 5,750 sq. ft. gym will likely yield ca. 3,500 sq. ft. of climbing space. This will create a negative user experience

Route Setting:

  • The quality of the route setting determines the user experience (“Route setting is your perishable product—the thing you need to keep fresh”). 
  • Good route setting requires talent and organization, a system of industry best practices, a strong head route setter, and a strong team under them–and you have to manage their health (setting and forerunning result in a lot of overuse injuries)
  • The hold library determines the quality of the routes. (“Holds are the route setters’ paint. The wall is the canvas.”)

Hold Room:

  • The hold room is a critical element of the gym
  • Hold room should be in or as close to the climbing gym space as possible for maximum efficiency (moving holds entails resources)
  • Hold room must include way to wash, dry holds (i.e., commercial dishwasher or commercial hot-water pressure washer and drain system; drying racks and fans)

Lifts:

  • 5-6 week turnover for routes is general rule of thumb (i.e., every route in in the gym is turned over every six weeks). One person can set 50 routes in a day with a lift. The same number of routes takes four people to set using ladders
  • Given the cost of housing in Jackson, and the difficulty finding and retaining employees, incorporating a lift may prove more cost-effective than using ladders. (“You can do it without a lift, but it’s exhausting and expensive.”)
  • “Always design the gym so you can get a lift into the facility to do maintenance, and route setting for events. This is the most common mistake that new gyms make. Can’t get the lift into the building.”

HVAC 

  • Chalk filtration, destratification and air quality are critical considerations and should be planned into the initial building design
    • Chalk destroys HVAC
    • Climbers generate more heat than typical rec activities
    • Chalk will work its way through the entire P&R facility
      • “Don’t underestimate the impact chalk can have on air quality throughout the rec center. It’s insidious.”
      • Real testing on climbing gym air quality hasn’t been done. (“We don’t know what breathing chalk does to your lungs.”) 

Height:

  • 45 feet is great for good climbers. 80% of climbers do better with 30-40’. 
  • The best gyms have a mix of heights (i.e., 45’ lead wall, 30-35’ top rope walls)
  • Beginning climbers on taller (45’) walls take ca. 15 minutes per climb. On shorter (30-35’ walls), they take 5 minutes per climb. This allows you to turn a route over every 5 minutes, which equals better crowd management and a better user experience
    • Shorter walls are less expensive to build

Gym Features:

  • The best walls are essentially big flat planes. 
  • Inclusion of cracks and auto belays should be carefully considered. 
    • Crack features are expensive, need to be sanitized (people bleed in them), and quickly go unused. 
    • Auto belays are dangerous (susceptible to user error and accidents), require emergency response plans and a lot of space (important consideration for smaller gyms), and slow down route turnover. 
  • Gyms are increasingly using volumes for route setting, which are larger and take more space to store

Bouldering v. Roped Climbing

  • Bouldering is increasingly popular. Modern facilities include 50% climbing and 50% bouldering
  • Tops of the bouldering areas should be used for hangboards, moonboard, stretching areas, etc., for a more efficient and cost-effective use of space 
  • Limit the height of bouldering walls to 12-14’ to minimize falling injuries
    • “Bear in mind most of your injuries are going to come from bouldering”

Operations:

  • Gym operations should be run utilizing climbing gym best practices to ensure safety, crowd control, and positive user experience
  • Staff determines safety and need to be professionally trained. (“I’d be hesitant to open a roped facility with non-specialized people. It’s about safety.”)
    • “What I’ve often seen as a problem in the noncommercial setting is a combination of apathy and marginal management: the ongoing condition of the climbing facility isn’t well maintained.“

Consider retaining an operations manager from within the industry as early as possible to minimize cost overruns and delays


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