Joining the Block Party

When people talk about climbing gyms, they don’t usually use phrases like “civic milestone,” “economic driver” and “sculpturesque.”

But then again, ever since Rock/Creek, High Point Climbing and the River City Company announced plans for The Block, it’s been clear that the facility will be a long way from “usual.”

“Everybody’s going to be able to see it and it’s pleasing to the eye,” Rock/Creek co-owner Dawson Wheeler says. “It’s sculpturesque. The bonus part is you can climb on the dang thing.”

Construction is scheduled to begin this month on the $4 million project, which will put a climbing gym and retail space into the former Bijou Theater building and parking deck downtown. The feature that’s grabbing the most attention is the 6,800-square-foot climbing wall on the outside of the building, which will allow climbers to ascend routes above Broad Street diners and other passers-by. “This is going to be very unique,” says John O’Brien Jr., the co-owner of High Point. “It’s getting cooler all of the time.”

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Dawson Wheeler, Mark McKnight, John O'Brien, John Wiygul and Jim Williamson

Current plans for what River City has labeled the biggest adaptive reuse project in Chattanooga’s history call for a Rock/Creek store to open there in July followed by High Point in August. When The Block was announced in October, word spread around the region quickly and was met with overwhelmingly positive reactions.

“What I think is fabulous about this project is that it’s such a creative approach to the problem,” wrote Cari Wade Gervin in Knoxville’s Metro Pulse. “Not only will (Chattanooga) fill in an empty big box, but it will also get an attractive screen over a hideously ugly parking deck, and one that actually serves a function to boot.”

Wheeler said the news spread equally fast in the outdoor community. “My inbox flooded,” he says. Wheeler, O’Brien and High Point’s other owner, John Wiygul, are counting on that wave of enthusiasm to continue — especially among downtown workers. Wiygul and O’Brien acknowledge there are cheaper places to build a gym, but the location will allow downtown professionals to visit High Point before, after or during their workday.

“The business crowd in Chattanooga likes to work out at lunch,” Wiygul says.

CROWDED MARKET?

Not everyone is thrilled to see that downtown’s new landmark will be a climbing gym.

“I believe that the High Point Climbing Gym will have an immediate effect on the other two climbing gyms that are operating in town,” says Rebecca Robran, co-owner of Urban Rocks Gym off of Amnicola Highway. “Chattanooga may grow to the point where it can sustain three commercial facilities but it is not there right now. The question is whether or not the existing mom and pop facilities can keep their doors open long enough to meet the market growth.”

For their part, the Block creators say they don’t want to put anyone out of business and believe the gym will raise awareness of climbing and generate more interest for all of the area’s climbing facilities. O’Brien says Boulder, Colo. has four climbing gyms that are all thriving.

“I think this will elevate everyone else,” Wheeler says.

Robran is not convinced. “With Boulder as an example, there are four commercial facilities there but all the facilities were built not with the idea of potential growth in the town but because the existing facilities were severely overcrowded throughout the year,” she explains. “Chattanooga’s market has not reached that point for the two existing facilities yet.”

Luis Rodriguez, who opened the city’s first climbing gym, Tennessee Bouldering Authority in 1999, says he is not worried.

“We’re not going to be in direct competition at all,” he explains. “It’s not going to hurt us; it’s going to help us by raising awareness for climbing.” Rodriguez says TBA is set up more as a “basement, hole in the wall” bouldering gym than a flashy setup with rope and high walls.

He hopes the gym will be a landmark and help bring a national or international climbing festival to the area. “It’s going to become like the Aquarium,” he says. “It’s going to be known as part of downtown.”

That’s exactly what Wheeler, O’Brien and Wiygul have in mind, saying the facility will be a “tipping point” that helps bring in such events. “This is really planting a flag in the middle of downtown saying ‘This is an outdoor town,’” says Rock/Creek marketing director Mark McKnight.

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Conceptual rendering of The Block, the retail space/climbing gym that is proposed to take over the Bijou Theatre building.

NATURAL RESOURCE

The Block’s creators say its opening will be a watershed moment for Chattanooga that will spark continued growth in the city’s outdoor economy. The first such moment took place in 2003 when then-Mayor Bob Corker launched an Outdoor Initiative to promote the area’s recreational assets as a tool for economic development.

A decade later, local businesses are starting to cash in on the much sought-after demographic of outdoor enthusiasts. “Today, you pull up at trailheads and you see BMW 5-series cars and Audi wagons,” Wheeler says. “It’s not the old hippy vans.”

John Ying, operations manager at The Crash Pad, says about half of the hostel’s guests are in town for the climbing, caving, hiking, kayaking or other outdoor activities. He believes businesses are just now capitalizing on the area’s outdoors attractions. “I think you’ll see this upward trend continue for a long time,” he says. “The secret’s getting out on Chattanooga. I think the secret’s already out.”

Lynn Bartoletti recently opened Four Bridges Outfitters on North Market Street with expectations that demand for outdoor gear — both from residents and visitors — will continue to grow. “I think we’re still on the way up,” she says. “You go to T-Wall or LRC or Rocktown and the (license) plates are from all over.”

What that growth looks like is anyone’s guess. “We must be on REI’s radar by now, but when they look at the numbers they still see a small market,” Rodriguez says. “Chattanooga’s still tiny, but would Patagonia put a store in here? Give it 5 or 10 years.”

Wheeler says there have been discussions about single-brand stores coming to town, but since the brands use such shops for advertising as much as sales, they require a huge volume of outdoor tourists. The Scenic City doesn’t have the numbers, yet, he says.

Although a comparison of Chattanooga against another well-known outdoor adventure destination, Asheville, N.C., reveals the Scenic City has an advantage in many key demographic criteria despite attracting fewer outdoor retailers. Asheville offers a variety of smaller mom and pop outdoor shops, plus larger stores including an REI. Yet, the population for Asheville is roughly half that of Chattanooga’s 170,000-plus and Buncombe County, N.C., has nearly 100,000 fewer residents than Hamilton County. Both cities rank about the same with average median household incomes in the $40,000 range.

Robran says there is always the risk of growing too quickly. “I believe that there can be continued growth for unique outdoor-oriented businesses,” she says. “I think that there is a danger of a bubble however if there are seven yoga studios, four outdoor retail stores, five bike shops and three or four climbing centers all within the downtown area.”

Local entrepreneurs and enthusiasts say they hope the city will be able to grow without undermining its selling point. For many, part of The Block’s appeal is that it will use an existing facility rather than plowing and paving new land. “It’s a double-edged sword when you talk about making the outdoors an industry” Rodriguez says. “There’s the balance between marketing the place as an outdoor haven and destroying the natural resources that brought the people here.”

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