The Long Road To Pittsburgh

The second story of the former brewery and the future home of Ascend. Photo: Ascend

When the team behind Ascend, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started the long road to opening their climbing gym, they had no idea just how long a road it would end up being. The facility, which will open doors next month, started with an idea back in 2011.

Local climbers Alex Bernstein and Paul Guarino had a passion for climbing that had developed at their local gyms and the nearby Red River Gorge. Even though they loved climbing they soon grew tired of the sharp corners and horizontal roofs at the gym and yearned for more amenities. After a visit to Mission Cliffs, a climbing gym in San Francisco operated by Touchstone, they knew that Pittsburgh needed a modern facility and had a hunch that other climbers felt the same way.

But with limited business experience (Bernstein had studied linguistics and Guarino had an MBA and managed a restaurant), the pair knew they would have to rely on their passion for climbing and their stick-to-it-ness if they were to finally succeed at opening a climbing gym.

The other hurdle they would have to get over would be helping people to look past the negative stigma of the rust-belt city and instead to see the potential return on a climbing gym.

A look at the bouldering area at Ascend. Photo: Ascend

The Education of a Gym Owner

It’s one thing to understand climbing and have a passion for it. It’s another thing completely to understand how to start a climing business and operate it successfully.

To be able to see their dream come true the Ascend team needed to do some serious studying. “Our first year was spent figuring out left from right. Honestly, we realized very quickly that we didn’t know much about the industry,” Guarino told CBJ earlier this year. “We went into it naively thinking we would build it ourselves. Which was the old model we were rebelling against!

Even though they knew in their hearts that a modern climbing gym would be successful, they also knew they would need some help getting there. So after some searching they found a start-up consulting package from climbing wall builder Rockwerx. The package, called GymCalc, includes software to help potential climbing gym owners flesh out a business plan and get a handle on the financials of running a climbing gym. Even though Ascend eventually contracted with Walltopia to build their walls and that the financial details now look very different, Guarino said the Rockwerx package “gave us the kick start that we needed.”

Once the team had a better understanding of the business of selling climbing they needed to raise the funds to make it happen. At first they approached venture capital firms and hoped for angel investors. But VC firms typically handle projects in the tens of millions and have strict requirements for high returns and relatively quick exit strategies that don’t fit well with the long-term nature of a climbing gym investment.

Through this sometimes painful process, they didn’t land any big deals but they did get some good advice: “This is a doctors, lawyers, and family friends type of project.” The size of facility Ascend was looking to build would need between two and four million dollars to complete. This “smaller” amount and a possible twenty-year return lends itself to people that are amateur investors that are equally passionate about bringing a gym to the area.

Getting their feet firmly planted and their heads on straight took the better part of a year. Their second year proved to be more fruitful. They landed their first investors and started the real estate search in earnest. Here they hit another setback. On multiple occasions, they found spaces that met their needs but in two instances the landlords backed out of the deals at the last second.

At this time the project was 50% funded and these delays seemed monumental. But looking back Bernstein said the delays “allowed us to surround ourselves with talented people and a board from all walks of life.” Even though they never found a particular climbing gym guru, they did have advisors from the finance and legal world and even a climber mom to help guide them through the process.

After almost five years of pushing the project forward by fits and starts, the team eventually ended up with a combination of funding sources: half came from private investment and the other half was a combination of a bank loan, a small loan from a private lender, plus the landlord’s contribution and a small loan from a community development organization.

Slow Growth

The Ohio River Valley, where Pittsburgh is located and also includes St. Louis, Cincinnati and Cleveland, has seen gym development on pace with the rest of the country. But Pittsburgh has up until now been left behind.

The area hasn’t seen a new climbing gym since The Climbing Wall (14,000 square feet of climbing) opened in 1992 in a Pittsburg suburb and in 1993 when Climb North (5,000 SFC) opened up fourteen miles north of downtown. These first-generation gyms have served their community well but over the last ten years have become outmoded.

Like most metro areas in the US, there were always rumors of new gyms coming in, but none ever came to fruition. From an industry perspective the Steel City was lacking interest from gym developers.

If other cities of a similar size are any indicator, Pittsburgh should have three to four commercial climbing facilities. Instead, they have two, small, out-dated rock gyms.

A view of the “Point” in downtown Pittsburgh.

The reason is not a deficit of people. Pittsburgh has 305,000 people that reside inside the city limits and an additional 2 million that call the metro area home. The area also has a sizeable college student population which includes the University of Pittsburgh (28,769) and Carnegie Mellon (12,569) and thirty-eight other public colleges.

Pittsburgh also has six Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered in the city as well as a nascent tech hub for companies such as Google, Apple, Amazon and Intel.

But one problem that is hard to dismiss is the overall lack of growth in the city’s population. Although the State of Pennsylvania has experienced weak population growth since 1990, the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania including the Pittsburgh metro area have experienced weak population decline since the late 1960s; the region lost 81,000 residents from 2000 to 2010 (a three-percent decline). While the rate of decline within the region has slowed in recent years, the population levels are projected to remain relatively flat through 2019.

Pittsburgh and the SW section of PA is also one of the poorest areas in the state, and has seen big drops in household income level over the past several decades.

Declining population and dropping incomes are hard to look past, but the main reason no other gym has tried to open a modern gym in the city may have more to do with the lack of faith in the local economy. Early in the project, Guarino met with a local business owner who understood the outdoor retail market. After looking at the gym’s business plan he said Guarino was “chasing a dead dream”, and predicted that the project would never be successful.

That’s disheartening to hear, but it’s not uncommon for long-time, hardened locals to have a skeptical view of the city. Afterall, over the decades they’ve been through the ups and downs and feel they have a real grounded perspective of what will make it in their city.

But what the Ascend team saw that nobody else did was that the new breed of climbing center is not your father’s musty rock gym. Modern gym operators now market to fitness enthusiasts even more so than they do the die-hard rock climber. These facilities also have become a cultural fixture for urban Millennials, a population Pittsburgh has in spades.

Change of Plans

When they started the Ascend team had two criteria that were the foundation of their plans to open a climbing gym in Pittsburgh. One, they wanted to be in the city limits of Pittsburgh; and two, they wanted to open a full-service facility with bouldering and sport climbing. These two requirements, it turns out were not compatible.

The single biggest challenge owners face when starting a full-service climbing gym is not funding but instead finding the right real estate. Many first-time operators go into their search thinking it will be quick and easy, and Guarino’s team had the same expectation. Pittsburgh has to be full of old warehouses and manufacturing plants, they thought. But year after year of searching left them with nothing but wear on their tires and no viable properties to show for it.

Top-out section of bouldering. Photo: Ascend

They found that a lot of the former manufacturing plants were simply not there; many had been torn down years ago. Or they found that warehouses and outmoded plants require a lot of capital to rehab and make functional for a new business, let alone for the specific needs of a climbing gym.

If the team was going to succeed at opening a climbing gym, they would need to soften their stance on one of their two parameters; either move to the suburbs or look for a space to accommodate a bouldering-only facility. Since the team lived in the city and understood the traffic patterns and habits of Pittsburghers, they knew that the suburbs were not an option.

So the only other option was to downsize and try for a bouldering-only space. “That was at first really hard to swallow,” Guarino said. “Do we want to open a bouldering gym? We always thought a bouldering gym would come second.” Indeed, many potential gym owners have this same thought.

“It was an ego thing. We should have been looking for a bouldering gym space years ago,” he said. So after some soul searching Guarino and his partners decided to sign a fifteen-year lease on the second story of an old brewery building in the south part of town.

The 27,000 square foot space has twenty-four foot ceilings and a 300 foot wall of non-stop windows that look out at the Steel City. In addition to 10,500 square feet of climbing surface they will also have a full training area that includes a Moon Board, woody and campus boards. Other amenities include locker rooms, cardio and yoga areas and a stand-alone foot washing station as well as indoor and outdoor bike parking. They’ll even have a small sport climbing section to appease those Red River Gorge climbers that just need to clip a few bolts.

Perseverance

Many developers have written off Pittsburgh, but Guarino and Bernstein, and the rest of the Ascend team, believed in the city where they became climbers.

What these guys are hoping to prove is that if you have a passion for climbing and the fortitude to persevere through years and years of setbacks, one day you’ll be able to open the doors on your very own climbing gym.

These guys also have something a lot of potential gym owners lack: a lifelong connection to the very community they hope to serve. “Our goal to is to help it and make it better,” Bernstein said. “We appreciate the other gyms in the area and the region. Without those other gyms, many of us would not even be climbers. We own them something.”

On one hand, they wanted to build a place for that community to come together, and on the other they wanted to create a business that they could be proud of and where they could enjoy going to work everyday.

When Bernstein first thought about opening a gym he knew he wanted more than just gym. “I just felt like all of my friends are banging away on computers in law firms or consulting companies,” he told CBJ. “This is not an NGO in Africa, we’re not saving the world,” he went on to say, “it just seemed like a much more worthwhile experience than being a guy at a desk someplace.”

“I wanted to do something that let me have a much more positive impact on the community. To have people come in and walk away with a smile and tell people about our business. Everybody was working for a paycheck and I wanted to work for a community reputation.”

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