From a Storage Unit to a Multi-Location Gym Chain – Gym of the Week

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The Pad gym chain
The Pad now operates two facilities across California and Nevada (pictured here)—with a third one planned—but the multi-location gym chain hasn’t forgotten its roots as a nonprofit. (All images courtesy of The Pad Climbing)

GYM: The Pad Climbing
LOCATION: San Luis Obispo, California and Henderson, Nevada
OPEN YEAR: 2006 and 2015
SQFT OF CLIMBING: 13,000 and 22,000
WHY WE’D VISIT: Unique history, community support, volunteer access
WHO WE SPOKE TO: Kristin Horowitz, Andy Raether, Jessica Mitchell

Humble Beginnings

The Pad “has been around in some capacity for almost 20 years,” says Jessica Mitchell, COO of the Pad, but the gym chain looks much different today than it used to. In 2002, The Pad was established in a 400-square-foot, 10-foot-tall self-storage unit by Paul Hatalsky, Julie Workman and Yishai Horowitz. The path to operating multiple gyms in the U.S. was not straight or easy for The Pad, as the gym was “financially broke” within the first month of opening.

In July 2005, the lease to the storage unit was lost, leading to the birth of SLO-Op II in San Luis Obispo in 2006. SLO-Op II was reportedly the first non-profit bouldering gym in the U.S., officially registered as a 501c7. The Pad leadership is honored they have paved the way for several other non-profit climbing gyms and co-ops in existence today.

 

Over time, The Pad continuously outgrew its gym spaces as its community grew. In 2009, a bigger (and “better”) facility was built, called SLO-Op III after SLO-Op II was torn down. Then a second location was added in Santa Maria six years later—a 10,000-square-foot climbing facility with the ability to host events and run programs.

In 2017, SLO-Op III was torn down to build The Pad’s current SLO-Op IV facility, still in San Luis Obispo. The gym was finally able to take on bank loans and investors after becoming a for-profit organization, but according to the owners the gym still gives back to the community as much as possible.

That community grew even larger when Ascent Ventures, The Pad’s parent company, was formed in 2019 in conjunction with Origin Climbing & Fitness, a gym based in Henderson, Nevada. Since then, The Pad Santa Maria has closed, the San Luis Obispo gym became The Pad SLO officially, and Ascent Ventures took the name The Pad Climbing. As of October 2021, there are two established locations for The Pad (SLO and Henderson), and a planned location in Santa Barbara, CA, on the way.

The Pad's storage unit gym
The crowded self-storage unit which was home to The Pad’s first climbing space.

A Shared Vision

Origin Climbing & Fitness, for its part, was founded in 2015 by John Wilder with Andy Raether as Head Routesetter and part owner. Raether is an accomplished professional climber and hold shaper who had his own hold business, Menagerie. “Being someone who some people looked to as a community leader, I was excited to come back around and do my part to build a community ground up in Henderson that could bring together as much of the positive parts of my personal experiences as possible,” said Raether.

According to Mitchell, Origin and The Pad had the same philosophy: “They wanted to create a space where anybody of any ability, no matter what kind of experience you have, was able to go into a gym and feel welcomed there. And it was a really easy transition as far as culture from Origin Climbing into The Pad just because that culture already existed.”

Community at The Pad gym
Located in different states, Origin and The Pad (pictured here in its early days) shared the same focus on community building.

The Pad and Origin’s paths first crossed when Wilder and Kristin Horowitz, The Pad’s CEO, became good friends through RockClimbing.com. After being active on a Facebook forum for climbing gym operators, Horowitz discovered Wilder and Raether had been pursuing the same gym vision and a new partnership soon took shape. “Origin was echoing what we’d been building for twenty years, so everyone involved saw that it was a natural fit when it became available,” Horowitz said.

Since joining forces, some things at Origin—now The Pad Henderson—have changed, like the redesign of Origin’s layout to include more yoga and fitness offerings and co-working stations and the shift to 24/7 access for members. But according to Raether their shared vision has stayed the same. “Since we are all on the same page to create immersive experiences, spaces and opportunities through climbing, community, fitness and love, I am happy to continue to be a member of this family and community,” Raether concluded.

The Pad gym co-working space
The Pad has been implementing new initiatives to make its gym spaces more accessible, including a Pay Another Way membership program.

Access for Everyone

For The Pad, a big part of that shared vision is “being as inclusive as we possibly can,” says Mitchell. One of the ways The Pad puts that value of inclusivity into practice is by having a sliding scale for those who cannot afford memberships. “We do have ways where you can climb, even if it’s something that you think is out of budget; we’ll make it work for you because we don’t want your finances to become a barrier of entry,” Mitchell said.

“Our gym started as a cheap little venture in a storage unit without anyone trying to make a dime off of it – and it’s always been a value of mine to remember how hard it was for me in those days to justify and afford the $15 membership to a storage unit gym,” said Horowitz about the origins of the sliding scale memberships. “For that reason, as we’ve grown and the facility and staffing and whole thing has gotten costly, I’ve never forgotten to ensure we provide access for people like me at that stage in my life. Because I had access, a lot of good came of it for the community and while we may not see it at the time, the fruits will yield: maybe not at our climbing gym but in the world.”

Climbing at The Pad's storage unit
The sliding scale system at The Pad is a form of paying it forward for Horowitz, who remembers the gym’s humble beginnings in a storage unit.

The Pad also has what Mitchell calls “support staff,” which consists of climbers who trade minimum work hours for a membership and minimum wage. Volunteers of the gym’s community partners can access free membership too if their organization provides proof. “Our philosophy is this: you get access by earning it you either pay or you give back to the community, whether that’s the gym or that’s the place you live,” said Horowitz.

In addition to supporting climbing organizations such as The Access Fund and The American Alpine Institute, The Pad partners with several local organizations as well. One of their regular community partners is The Phoenix, a sober living group that climbs at The Pad Henderson at least once a month. The Pad Hendersen and SLO also partner with nonprofits specific to children and families, conservation organizations, and groups serving BIPOC communities.