Inside Moves, located in Byron Center, Michigan, is one of the oldest gyms in the country. It was founded in 1989 and has been serving climbers of the greater Grand Rapids area ever since. But even with such longevity and heritage, the gym has evolved with the times. Most recently, Inside Moves completed a 4,000-square foot expansion that was the result of the closure of an adjoining business—a mechanic shop. The whole process proved to be a DIY accomplishment and a bright spot for the gym during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The landlord—who works in the adjacent lot—wanted to rent [the mechanic shop space] out as soon as possible,” says Inside Moves’ owner Paulie Abissi, when explaining the genesis of the gym’s expansion project. “So, it was really one of the few instances—maybe ever—where we’d be able to go ahead and rent the space beside the gym.”
Abissi has owned Inside Moves since purchasing the original gym space from a previous owner in 2016. (His father, Frank, actually started another time-honored Michigan gym, Higher Ground, in 1995—which the Abissi family also operates.) Paulie Abissi says that purchasing that attached mechanic space, and then turning it into part of the preexisting Inside Moves gym, was all about calculating the financial implications and then “just going for it.”
The Appeal of DIY Projects
Abissi chose to handle most of the construction of Inside Moves’ expansion himself and with a small crew, largely for economic reasons. He had some previous DIY experience, particularly in building a few homewalls for kids he coached on the gym’s youth team. So, he felt ready and eager to undertake a larger construction project related to climbing walls.
Abissi points out that there are benefits to purchasing any space for gym expansion that has already been operating as a viable business; for example, there is typically already usable insulation, roofing, and siding in the acquired space. Of the mechanic shop, in particular, Abissi explains, “We just had to do a thorough power-washing of the walls and floors. But pretty much it was move-in ready for us. It already had cement floor for us to work off of. All of our features are free-standing, so we were able to just bolt into the ground the way the previous mechanic shop had their lifts bolted to the ground.”
Abissi clarifies that he is not at all averse to bringing in companies for construction projects: “I definitely love the works of the climbing wall manufacturers,” he notes. However, he admits that he feels a personal sense of satisfaction from doing any DIY construction at the gym—especially this recent expansion. “It gives a lot more personality to it, a lot more character, and a lot more feeling of appreciation for it,” Abissi says.
The process to build various bouldering structures in the adjoining space that had formerly been the mechanic shop did have some challenges (“hiccups,” according to Abissi), most notably because it was all taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point all the construction, along with every non-essential business in Michigan, had to cease operations. And even when construction was allowed to restart, Abissi still encountered challenges in obtaining wood for the bouldering walls and holds on time.
But the entire expansion endeavor was a success in the end, with the adjoining wall to the former mechanic shop being torn down—to reveal all the new bouldering structures—just one day prior to opening the expansion to the public near the end of last year.
The Importance of Preparation
When asked what advice he would offer to other gym owners who are keen to expand, Abissi says planning is key. He summarizes this as “strategic placement,” meaning it is well worth the time to examine precisely how the expansion will be used—not as vacant space, but as a populated entity.
“You definitely have to be very conscious of the future, and if you’re expecting to try to accommodate a lot of people, how would you like to accommodate them?” Abissi explains. “You definitely want to take a lot of time to think ahead and make sure you understand where everything is going to be, exactly. That way, you know—if I have this boulder over here, will I have enough space to make sure I can safely have some climbers here spotting on either side and they’re not going to get fallen on by accident by climbers over here?”
Inside Moves is currently operating—with the new, expanded bouldering area—at 25-percent capacity due to COVID mitigation. Abissi considers the successful expansion project to be a silver lining to the pandemic. “I just love this perspective of DIY and all the stuff that we had to do to get it done—even the hiccups,” he says.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs