By John Burgman
Long famous for premier outdoor areas like Stone Fort and Horse Pens 40, Tennessee and Alabama have been garnering attention over the past several years for becoming something of an indoor climbing hub as well. This renown can largely be traced to High Point Climbing and Fitness, an LLC formed in 2013 by John Wiygul and Johnny O’Brien that has built a number of popular gyms in a fairly short period of time. In fact, this year, three new High Point gyms are slated to be opened within a span of 12 months, which will bring High Point’s total number of facilities to six gyms in six years—a record for the region, and a rate of growth that indicates a ravenous Southern climbing market.
But the profusion of High Point gyms—including facilities in Birmingham, Alabama and Chattanooga, Tennessee—is only half the story. At the heart of High Point’s success has been the longtime friendship and business partnership between Wiygul and O’Brien—and particularly their calculated choice to focus on the development of a distinct area, rather than cast a wide net all over the country. “[John Wiygul and I] prefer to focus our growth within a geographical region, which allows our management team to be more efficient with their time and be in the gyms on a more frequent basis,” says O’Brien. “As a long-term real estate investor, I prefer to own the real estate fee simple rather than entering into a lease. It requires a much larger investment on the front-end but I believe the benefits from a financial perspective are worth the risk and it aligns with my personal investment strategy.”
Indeed, it is the different, complementing backgrounds of
Wiygul and O’Brien that make the partnership work so well. O’Brien is a
business entrepreneur who has been deeply enmeshed in the ownership of Senior
Housing properties and at one point was the president of a billion-dollar
healthcare company. Wiygul, on the other hand, is a die-hard climber who
decided to turn his hobby into his profession. And it was the duo’s shared
passion for running, of all things, that provided High Point’s genesis. “We
wanted to build a climbing gym, and since my partner was from Memphis, we
thought this was a great location for our first gym,” recalls O’Brien. “John
and I are ultra-trail runners and on a race team sponsored by Rock/Creek, a
regional outdoor retailer. The owner
heard of our plans and persuaded us to look at a movie theater in downtown
Chattanooga in the heavy traffic district.
It wasn’t the perfect space but the location was incredible. With a height limitation, it caused us to
think outside the box and what was a barrier, actually turned into our
strongest asset; an iconic outdoor climbing wall.”
The two promptly revamped that old theater space into the first High Point gym, in the heart of Chattanooga’s tourist district. From there, they continued to carve out a unique identity for the High Point brand with additional facilities. Most of the High Point gyms feature an area known as the “Kid Zone,” inspired in concept by the kid-friendly spaces at Sender One in California. High Point’s Kid Zones are approximately 3,000 square feet of Walltopia’s interactive Fun Walls.
Also, three of the High Point gyms include the aforementioned (artificial) outdoor wall that has become, according to O’Brien, the “signature feature of not only those individual gyms, but of High Point Climbing as a company.”
Inspired by similar walls in Europe—and particularly the famed World Cup wall in Innsbruck, Austria—High Point’s outdoor walls cost between $700,000 and $1,200,000 to construct, which O’Brien and Wiygul look at as long-term investments. They note that the uniqueness of the outdoor walls includes a transparent fiberglass surface and backlit LED systems, which play into the cost. But the uniqueness allows the walls to synergize with other tourism landmarks around the region. “For example, our iconic wall in Chattanooga is used by the City, Visitors Bureau and private businesses in their marketing materials,” notes O’Brien.
Of the newest High Point facilities, the 32,000-square-foot Memphis location is the most expensive to date. Noteworthy also for being the first ground-up construction project of the High Point brand, it was unveiled and open to patrons following a recent ribbon-cutting ceremony. It features top rope and bouldering, along with the typical Kid Zone area, a yoga studio, a fitness room, two birthday party rooms, and an outdoor wall.
A 27,000-square-foot gym in Huntsville, Alabama, is scheduled to have its own grand opening at the end of the month. It will include all of the accouterments of the Memphis location. But additionally, High Point will be constructing a freestanding outdoor climbing wall in a new Huntsville city park—the city specifically reached out to High Point asking if they’d build such a structure to include in a 100-acre metropolitan recreation space. “That’s part of our model; outdoor walls are a great marketing resource and allows us to attract interest in the sport and expose first time climbers to our gym,” says Wiygul. “It’s also a benefit for our members to climb outdoors and enjoy the weather on great days.”Finally, High Point will be opening its first bouldering-only gym (12,000 square feet) in Cleveland, Tennessee (30 miles east of Chattanooga), which Wiygul sees as a counterpart to the mixed discipline High Point gyms that already exist in the Chattanooga area. “We’re already in the Chattanooga market with two facilities that have sport climbing, 15-meter speed walls and bouldering,” he says. “Since the High Point climbing community continues to grow, we wanted to expand our presence and spread out into the suburbs. It seemed like a logical strategy to develop a bouldering-only gym to complement our existing product.”
John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.