Member-Owned and Volunteer-Run in Minnesota – Gym of the Week

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Minnesota climbing gym co-op
The MNCC gym, built as a labor of love by the founders themselves. (All images courtesy of MNCC)

GYM: Minnesota Climbing Cooperative (MNCC)
LOCATION: Minneapolis, Minnesota
OPEN YEAR: 2011
SQFT OF CLIMBING: 3,500
WHY WE’D VISIT: 24/7 access for members, BIPOC mixer, Sunday doughnuts
WHO WE SPOKE TO: Sarah Vanderheiden

A Gym of Their Own

Minnesota Climbing Cooperative (MNCC) is a bouldering gym located in Minneapolis and one of the only co-op climbing gyms in the U.S. Around 2009, when MNCC was first being imagined, there were few climbing facilities in the entire Twin Cities area. Wanting a space of their own―away from crowded walls and birthday parties―the founders got fundraising and eventually built the gym with their own hands. They opened and officially registered MNCC as a cooperative in 2011.

 

Sarah Vanderheiden, president of the current Board of Directors, stressed the importance of donations throughout the co-op’s existence. During the initial construction phase, for example, the founders only paid for absolute essentials, such as permits and registration fees. Architectural and engineering drawings, construction, POS systems, and other operation must-haves were donated. “All our original holds were donated from the founding board members and other supporting members,” Vanderheiden told CBJ. Savings from member dues have been put back into further developing the facility, like when MNCC upgraded its landing surface and refreshed the walls.

MNCC walls and holds
The spray and slab walls at MNCC. Today MNCC has a hold budget, but still receives donated holds from members.

Democratic Management

As a cooperative, perhaps most unique about MNCC’s bouldering gym is its organizational structure. Like other gyms, MNCC needs a management team and personnel to run the gym; however, different than most gyms, its leadership (Board of Directors) is elected by members and its day-to-day operations are run almost entirely by the Board and other volunteer members―apart from the paid head routesetter and bookkeeper positions. In short, members of MNCC become co-owners of the gym, accepting a shared responsibility of the facility for 24/7 access.

“As a Co-op member and owner, you can vote on (or be on) the board of directors and guide the future direction of the Co-op. You also have access to discounts, and in profitable years, patronage dividends,” reads MNCC’s website. According to Vanderheiden, members can also volunteer at the gym in exchange for free access, but in general the member-elected Board manages the vast majority of the gym’s operations.

Climbing at MNCC co-op
MNCC members and guests enjoying the gym, which is open 24/7 to members.

Member-Led Programming

Being a co-owner of MNCC doesn’t stop at Board elections and volunteering. Members play an active role in shaping gym programming and, according to the by-laws, if a member voices something it must be considered. “Any member can suggest and/or help host an event. Being entirely volunteer-run means anyone who’s excited enough about an idea to make it happen is able to do so, with the help of the Board,” said Vanderheiden.

Although their budget is bare bones, some of the programs MNCC makes an effort to set aside funding for are DEI-related initiatives. MNCC now hosts monthly BIPOC mixers and socials―which initially was the idea of a local community member―alongside the Twin Cities chapter of the American Alpine Club. MNCC also sponsors a local BIPOC ice climbing clinic.

“We understand it’s helpful, to a point, to voice support for BIPOC and other underrepresented folks in our community, but it’s even more important to provide support through actions,” Vanderheiden said. “We just celebrated 10 years of being open and running, and we’re excited that we’re starting our next decade with new diversity and equity initiatives to keep evolving our community towards our shared ideal.”

Staying Together

Members around the country supported their climbing gyms during the COVID shutdowns, and the cooperative spirit at MNCC has continued during the pandemic as well. Although the gym was only open two-thirds of the year, income stayed relatively level in 2020 thanks to members donating and continuing to pay dues. Fortunately, because MNCC is run by volunteers, the co-op did not have to make difficult decisions regarding furloughing employees.

Since reopening, the gym’s capacity has been limited and access was initially restricted to members only. Vanderheiden expressed gratitude for MNCC’s volunteers and their flexibility throughout this period, who have helped with additional cleaning protocols and provided one-on-one orientations to new members. “We look forward to the return of Sunday doughnuts and coffee, guests in our space, and the bottom half of everyone’s faces,” Vanderheiden concluded.