Building a Partnership in Milwaukee

A rendering of what Adventure Rock and the apartments will look like when finished.
A rendering of what Adventure Rock and the apartments will look like when finished.
A rendering of what Adventure Rock and the apartments will look like when finished.

By Rich Evans
Adventure Rock Climbing’s general manager, Craig Burzynski used to considered himself a climber who happened to run a climbing gym. Now, after eighteen years of plunging toilets and managing employees at Ad Rock’s first location in Brookfield, Wisconsin, he now tells people that he’s a businessman. It’s that kind of change in thinking that propelled Adventure Rock to partner with Milwaukee’s premier developer, Mandel Group, to build a state-of-the-art climbing gym with underground parking, apartments, and 18,000 square feet of Eldorado walls all set on prime Milwaukee real estate.

Burzynski, and the team behind Ad Rock, started the search for a new location four years ago after local climbers begged them to open a gym closer to Milwaukee. At first, he looked for existing buildings that he could pop the roof on which would run about $2 million to accomplish. But there was a steep learning—and time consuming—curve in regards to the roles of architects, brokers and lawyers in the process of modifying buildings and expanding into a new location.

“We thought we were ready to go when we had an architect, and then when we had a broker, but things really got moving when the lawyers got involved,” he said.

It took two years to decide that new construction was the best option. Originally, Burzynski was considering building the new gym on a $200,000 lot but realized the advantages of another lot across town going for $2 million.

That property is owned by Mandel Group. When Ad Rock’s real estate broker brought the two companies together both parties realized the project was a perfect fit. Mandel Group supplied the real estate and construction know-how and Ad Rock supplied the gym business operations. Plus, Ad Rock got choice riverside property in the Riverwest neighborhood.

Friendly Competitor

The pace of construction is a matter of perspective. For an owner fronting the costs of a new building, and for local climbers wanting a new place to climb, construction can’t move fast enough. Burzynski attributes the pace, from the initial planning two years ago, to the grand opening later this week, on Mandel Group’s insistence on keeping building costs down.

“It’s a mathematical formula. In order to pay off a building in 20 years, it can only cost so much, that’s just the way it works,” he said.

On the other hand, Mandel Group’s Emily Nechvatal said that buildings that size take about two years to plan and build.

A look at the bouldering area in the new Adventure Rock.  Photo: Ad Rock
A look at the bouldering area. Photo: Ad Rock

Under the current arrangement, Mandel Group owns the building and Ad Rock has a long-term lease for the climbing space which comes in at 17,000 square feet including a mezzanine-level bouldering area. The climbing wall-to-floor area ratio is about 1:1, which is “the golden number people use now. It used to be 1.5:1, but then climbers bump elbows when it gets crowded,” Burzynski said.

That’s one reason Ad Rock looked to build a new gym. Their first location, in Brookfield, about 30 minutes outside of Milwaukee, has become so popular that Burzynski has to manage the crowding with some creative scheduling. Plus, “Ad Rock wanted to protect its backyard. If we didn’t build in Milwaukee, someone else would have.” Burzynski said.

But Ad Rock isn’t letting the Brookfield location languish as a second-class gym. Their business model calls for the Brookfield location to be a friendly competitor to the new Milwaukee location. Last year they expanded parking at the Brookfield gym, and they are currently remodeling the front desk area, pro shop, a short-wall autobelay section and building a new bouldering cave and workout space.

The decor in the front-desk area matches the decor at the Milwaukee location. The idea is to give local climbers a choice between two good gyms, and a way to have a change of scenery.

A view into the new Adventure Rock which is still under construction.  Photo: Ad Rock
A view into the new Adventure Rock. Photo: Ad Rock

For a while though, the Milwaukee location is going to be the new climbing hotspot, and for good reason. With over $100,000 invested in holds and 42-foot walls over carpet-bonded foam floors, there are plenty of challenges for all abilities. The 42-foot walls are considerably more expensive than 30-foot walls, and are high enough to thrill, but not frightening to new climbers. Burzynski calls 32 feet to 45 feet the “sweet spot” for height and he said walls over 45 feet are “insanely expensive.”

Burzynski, along with Eldorado Climbing Walls designers and members of the Ad Rock staff, looked at angles, features, and paint schemes that they particularly liked and built the walls with those features, which include an elephant head-like outcropping and a spire framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the building. Motorists traveling west down Milwaukee’s busy North Street, in front of the building, will see some spectacular climbing.

“We would work our butts off all week long and drag ourselves in and try and be nice on weekends to give hard-hat tours,” Burzynski said, “but you know what—it was easy and awesome to see the level of psychness that everyone had for the place. To see them seeing and following the same lines we had been working on was very rewarding and worth everything.”

Hard hat tours earlier this year.  Photo: Ad Rock
Hard hat tours earlier this year. Photo: Ad Rock

Burzynski wants to see the new gym become more than a place for rope guns to practice. The new gym is really part of a climbing lifestyle. There are showers so that climbers can make an evening of climbing and then walk to dinner at a nearby restaurant. The gym’s neighborhood is historic, revitalized, and progressive.

Mandel Group is capitalizing on the neighborhood by marketing the apartments to young, active clients—but not to climbers directly. The gym is mentioned on Mandel Group’s Belay Apartment’s Facebook page, but the gym doesn’t take the lead role in the promotional material.

According to the Facebook page, from the apartments “It is an easy bike ride to downtown. Perhaps best of all, you’ll have immediate access to the Milwaukee River at the spot where it changes from an urbanized channel to a tree-canopied natural river corridor complete with trails, kayak access and abundant wildlife.”

Some of the 46 one-and-two-bedroom apartments should be available in July 2016. The apartments are renting from $1,295 for 652 square feet. That price is consistent with other new property in the area.

For Mandel Group, building the gym together with the apartments was simply a matter of building a bigger box—to house the gym—and having Ad Rock as a permanent tenant. The apartments are one exterior wall of the gym, facing Milwaukee River and Downtown.

That’s the beauty of the concept, and one reason the project passed easily through Milwaukee’s planning bureaucracy: the structure provides jobs, recreation, and living space. Ad Rock employs about 12 full-time and 45 part-time employees.

Burzynski is particularly proud of his employees. “I’m not exactly a micro-manager, but I like things done a certain way. With these people, I can stay out of the way and know things will get done the right way.”

He considered his staff’s needs in the design and construction of the new gym. It has a dedicated staff break room, the hold storage area has custom, tiered drawers to organize and store holds, and the dirty hold spray-down room is large enough to wash a small car in.

Many of his employees have been with Ad rock for years – since they were teenagers. One reason they stay is because he encourages them to step into new responsibilities; from hosting kids’ birthday parties to coaching, or working the front desk. Just like Burzynski himself, these young climbers are seeing the business side of the new indoor climbing industry and embracing it.