[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original piece published on January 2.]
In the latest update to the ongoing and far-reaching industry conversation about USA Climbing’s proposed new National Training Center, USA Climbing recently released a 15-minute YouTube video update from its “Gym Partner Task Force.” The video features members of the task force introducing themselves and addressing some of the exposition that led to the task force’s creation.
The video is a precursor to what is being deemed Phase 2 of a process, with Phase 1 being the current gathering of feedback, objections and suggestions from gym owners and operators related to the proposed Training Center. The feedback is predominantly being collected online through USA Climbing’s National Training Center survey.
“The purpose of our task force is to identify ways to rebuild trust with the owners and operators of gyms around the country—and we acknowledge that we are currently in a trust deficit with many of you,” task force member Steve Struthers states in the YouTube video’s opening.
Later in the video, task force member Kyra Condie says, “We know that many of you are eager to move beyond surveys and engage in direct dialogue with us, and we’ve already had a lot of one-on-one conversations with gym owners since the task force has started—but we are really looking forward to hearing from more of you, and so we’re ready to deepen that engagement through a series of video roundtables.”
The roundtables will run for approximately 90 minutes and be comprised of 10-12 gym owners—with specific topics being in focus for each session. USA Climbing explained to CBJ that gyms possessing a USA Climbing membership will be invited (via email) to participate in the roundtables. Completion of the aforementioned National Training Center survey will not be a prerequisite for roundtable inclusion.
An email sent later by USA Climbing to a number of gym owners specified the following dates and times (in MT time zone) for upcoming roundtable discussions, while also offering the gyms an opportunity to pre-register:
- Wednesday 2/21 from 10:30 a. to 12:00 pm
- Friday 2/23 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm
- Tuesday 2/27 from 3:00 pm to 4:30 pm
- Wednesday 2/28 from 10:30 am to 12:00 pm
- Thursday 2/29 from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm
The email from USA Climbing also explained that the agenda for each roundtable will include a review of the results of the gym survey and an “interactive discussion of emerging ideas related to the proposed components of the [National Training Center] project—athlete development, event hosting, and community access.”
Some time of each roundtable session will also be devoted to discussing the relationship between USA Climbing and gyms. “We are planning to do more engagement around this topic in the months ahead,” the email added.
Stay tuned to CBJ for continuing coverage of this story.
Task Force Survey Does Little to Lessen Gyms’ Concerns About New National Training Center; Shocking Board of Directors Resignation
Published January 31, 2024
[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from the original piece published on January 2.]
This week marks the official halfway point of USA Climbing’s self-imposed 45-day pause on plans to develop a new National Training Center. Yet, there is still anger and frustration among gym owners as to the lack of communication from USA Climbing during the pause. There are also growing doubts about the effectiveness of a task force, which was put in place by USA Climbing to gather feedback from gym owners about the National Training Center’s development.
“We were really optimistic when we heard about the task force,” Jeffery Bowling, Creative and Business Development Director at the Touchstone gyms, told CBJ. “Unfortunately, the only communication from the task force is the survey they sent out [January 25].”
The online survey referenced by Bowling invites climbing gyms to offer feedback on the National Training Center, and USA Climbing has indicated that a similar survey will soon be open to feedback from competitors, parents and coaches. But Bowling feels that many aspects of USA Climbing’s proposed National Training Center—such as its commercial component, as well as the center’s ability to host events—have already been decided, at least according to the verbiage of the survey.
“It seems like the task force is already working in a framework for the [National Training Center] that many of us fundamentally oppose,” Bowling elaborated, speaking on behalf of multiple gym owners. “It was my hope that the task force would take a much bigger picture view of this project and see how it could work for all stakeholders. Instead it seems to be asking us to accept that many aspects of this project are already set in stone and are not open for discussion.”
Other gym owners and operators feel similarly. Wes Shih, co-founder of Sender One, explained that the task force feels like merely a veneer, asking for feedback but in a manner that forces only positive responses. In that framework, Shih detects a level of bias that makes the task force’s efforts feel incomplete at best and disingenuous at worst, in his opinion.
Dustin Buckthal, CEO/CFO of The Front, told CBJ, “Our perception is that USAC is intent on forming a counter-coalition to defend its existing commercial-based plans, rather than genuinely considering any alternative paths to a National Training Center. The initial engagement from the much-awaited task force was merely an online survey. This survey was seemingly designed to support their predetermined agenda rather than to sincerely gather diverse opinions or collect insights that could contribute to alternative visions for a National Training Center.”
Buckthal added, “So far, this disjointed process hasn’t been the dialogue and transparency we had hoped for when USAC promised it.”
Adding to frustrations with USA Climbing’s task force survey was a public statement from a task force member last week, which read: The Gym Partner Task Force looks forward to continued opportunities to thoughtfully address the many perspectives regarding the Training Center, this Task Force’s work, and the broader engagement between USAC and its gym partners. The Task Force is currently communicating directly with USA Climbing’s gym partners to collect feedback, build connections, and engage those partners in the development of this project’s vision.
“That all sounds very nice and responsive,” Jon Lachelt, co-founder and general manager of Ascent Studio, said to CBJ about the statement. “How the ‘engage those partners in the development of this project’s vision’ actually plays out is the key to our contention with USA Climbing. The ‘vision’ seems already to have been set.” Lachelt added, “The vision that has already been presented will by definition have the [National Training Center] in direct competition with their supposedly ‘partner’ gyms. It’s hard to believe that USA Climbing will be able to correct this misstep in such a way that satisfies their gym partners and still fulfills USA Climbing’s commitments to the legislative stakeholders.”
When pressed for more information regarding that statement from the task force, USA Climbing explained that the task force has thus far had conversations with “about 10 gym partners,” and through the survey received “more than 40 responses.” Those responses will be analyzed this week. “We recognize the urgency that many gym partners are feeling around this project,” Steve Struthers, one of the members of the task force, told CBJ. “Our focus, as volunteers with additional Board and non-USAC responsibilities, has been on setting up a plan for gym partner engagement, a communication of that plan to the gym partner community, and the development of our initial [National Training Center] survey.”
In another significant development, Alice Kao, CEO of the aforementioned Sender One, resigned from the USA Climbing Board of Directors on January 29. In a letter of resignation, Kao wrote, “While I started my tenure with hope and optimism, I have now lost all confidence in this Board’s ability to lead USA Climbing and steward competition climbing in the way this sport deserves.”
Kao was the only member of USA Climbing’s Board with direct ties to the ownership of a climbing gym, and she was also a previous recipient of the ‘Small Business’ Person of the Year award from the U.S. Small Business Administration. At a representative level, her exit from the Board puts additional figurative distance between USA Climbing and the commercial operation of gyms—a disconnect that lies at the heart of many gyms’ objections to the National Training Center.
Further in her resignation letter, Kao condemned USA Climbing and its Board of Directors for failing to uphold its core values, including Integrity and Teamwork, as well as Inspiration and Excellence. “This Board has made ongoing decisions to steer financial and operational resources away from youth climbing, which provides USA Climbing most of its annual budget,” Kao explained. “This disproportionate focus toward the elite levels of our sport needs to change. This Board has capitalized on the love so many constituencies have for this sport and for their own communities while at the same time denying them a voice in decision making.”
The USA Climbing Board of Directors responded to Kao’s resignation with their own statement after CBJ reached out. They pushed back on Kao’s comments, and listed a variety of current and future initiatives to demonstrate they are “continuing to engage our many stakeholders to solicit advice, feedback, and to grow the sport we love for years to come.” Additionally, they signaled intent to fill the vacant Board position with a gym owner.
As illustrated in Kao’s letter, increasing frustrations from gym owners are evolving into larger, more substantive mistrust of USA Climbing. When asked how the National Training Center controversy has affected his gym’s relationship with USA Climbing, Jon Lachelt of Ascent Studio said, “Unsure at this point. Unrelated to this project, our gym does not have any USA Climbing comps on our calendar for 2024 yet, so we haven’t had to make any specific decisions about hosting a comp for [USA Climbing]. That said, it’s certainly been in our consciousness as we plan for the fall.”
Lachelt’s comments came just a week after Ian McIntosh, CEO of the Mesa Rim gyms, chose to forgo the tentative hosting of a Divisional Championship youth competition in objection to the National Training Center’s proposed commercial gym component.
Stay tuned to CBJ for continuing coverage of this story.
National Training Center Pushback Affects Comp Schedule and Multi-Million-Dollar Loan for The Front
Published January 25, 2024
The 45-day pause that effectively put USA Climbing’s ambitious plans for a new National Training Center on hold has been in place for over two weeks. But the pause has not stopped the hot-button issue of the Training Center’s development from continuing to have ramifications and reverberations in multiple areas of the climbing industry.
For instance, as reported last week by BuildingSaltLake.com, a director from the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency (SLCRA) notified CEO/CFO of The Front, Dustin Buckthal, that a previously approved $2 million expansion loan for The Front was being paused. The move was noteworthy because SLCRDA is also enwrapped in the lease procedures for the aforementioned USA Climbing Training Center in Salt Lake City—a plan that Buckthal publicly opposed, particularly due to the Training Center’s proposed commercial gym (for-profit) component.
“Your opposition to the [National Training Center] project has expanded from a narrow opposition to the commercial gym component to opposing the project wholesale,” a missive to Buckthal from the SLCRA stated.
Buckthal went on record saying that he does not, in fact, oppose the wholesale concept of a new national Training Center, but feels that a commercial component of a new Training Center would be in direct competition with the commercial operations of The Front, which is also based in Salt Lake City.
In a January 19 message to USA Climbing’s gym partners, USAC CEO Marc Norman affirmed that the loan pause “was a decision solely made by the [Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency]…”
Reverberations are also being felt outside of Salt Lake City. Mesa Rim, which operates gyms in Texas, Nevada and California, was “penciled in” as the host for an upcoming Divisional Championship—but recently chose to forgo any such hosting duties in its facilities.
Ian McIntosh, Mesa Rim’s CEO, was one of the many gym owners who publicly opposed the new Training Center’s commercial gym component earlier this month. McIntosh told CBJ that he is yet to see any “meaningful engagement or clear change in strategy” by USA Climbing. “We are not hosting any competitions that were not already under contract at this time,” McIntosh explained. “I am deeply committed to supporting youth climbing and it saddens me that USA Climbing is moving in a direction that is not in the best interest of 99 percent of youth climbers in this country. My goal in taking a stand on this issue is in large part to ensure that all youth climbers get the support they need from USA Climbing in the future.”
A USA Climbing task force was created to gather feedback from gym owners amid the 45-day pause in the Training Center’s development. In his January 19 message, Norman indicated the task force will be reaching out to USAC’s gym partners this week.
Stay tuned to CBJ for further updates as the 45-day pause continues.
USA Climbing’s Plans for a New National Training Center Paused Amid Protests from Gym Owners—Latest Updates
Published January 9, 2024
Talks between gym owners and USA Climbing—pertaining to USA Climbing’s plans for a new Training Center in Salt Lake City—have continued this week. Development of the Training Center remains a hot-button issue.
Most recently, on January 9, USA Climbing’s board of directors and the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City—commonly known as SLCRDA—agreed “to pause the process for securing a ground lease for a National Training Center site,” according to a USA Climbing letter.
The pause will remain in place for at least 45 days as discussions continue between all relevant parties. As part of the ongoing dialogue, USA Climbing also announced the creation of a task force to “gather, analyze, and assess valuable feedback from gym owners…[and] explore ways to build and rebuild connections and trust between USAC and its core partners.” Another primary goal of the creation of the task force is to engage gym owners in the ongoing development of a new training center. The five members of the task force are: Maureen Beck, Kyra Condie, Laura Domoto, Deana Labriola, and Steve Struthers.
That recent update comes on the heels of a group call hosted by Climbing Wall Association on January 4, during which a number of gym owners expressed their ongoing concerns about the Training Center—and, in particular, expounded on their objections to a would-be commercial gym component of the Training Center. USA Climbing’s Board of Directors hosted a meeting for gym owners that same day, January 4.
Gyms Unify in Protest of USA Climbing’s Plan for a New National Training Center
Published January 2, 2024
USA Climbing’s National Training Center development project, which has been in the works for some time, has recently received intense pushback from a number of prominent climbing gyms. Specifically, many gym owners have expressed increased displeasure and concern that a commercial gym portion of the new National Training Center will draw customers away from preexisting commercial climbing gyms—particularly those gyms in the Salt Lake City area where the National Training Center will reside. Some climbing gym owners also feel that the commercial gym portion of the National Training Center could potentially monopolize the hosting of large-scale American climbing competitions. And behind these concerns is a belief that USAC has been proceeding with the National Training Center development without close enough consultation with gym owners, a key stakeholder group known to have been fundamental to the organization’s solvency and growth over the years.
One of the first formal expressions of such concerns came on December 10, when several executives at The Front Climbing Club (CEO Dustin Buckthal, Chief of Staff Justin Wyse, and Director of Routesetting Eddie Morillas) collectively authored a letter to USA Climbing declaring opposition to the National Training Center’s commercial climbing gym component. “The Front has been a strong supporter of USAC events, staff, and athletes for many years, but we have consistently communicated our opposition to USAC opening a commercial climbing gym in Salt Lake,” the letter stated, adding, “…a publicly funded, directly competing commercial climbing gym mere blocks from established, local gyms is not in line with USAC’s mission or recognition of ‘the critical role that climbing gyms play in our organization.’”
The letter stressed that The Front does support the need for a larger, dedicated training space for the USA National Team athletes—but would suspend USA Climbing events/competitions at The Front gyms “until we have assurances that the project will be in line with USAC’s mission and not a direct threat to our business.”
Further developments after that initial letter from The Front included a Zoom call with Climbing Wall Association representatives and multiple gym owners. And on December 21, USA Climbing President and CEO Marc Norman responded to the mounting concerns with a letter of his own. Norman stated, “Our vision for the [National Training Center] is not that of a typical commercial climbing gym. The [National Training Center] will be different, it is not solely focused on generating revenue. It will be purpose built to host major National and International events with spectator capacities ranging from 1000+ in the indoor comp spaces to 3500+ in the outdoor comp spaces. It will provide high-performance athletes with dedicated training, locker rooms, and recovery spaces—not only for elite adult athletes, but also paraclimbing athletes with an accessibility focus throughout.”
Norman’s letter also explained that the National Training Center would exist and operate as an LLC separate from the USA Climbing governing body organization—and that “income generated from the [National Training Center] will be reinvested into the sport nationwide.”
More recently, on December 28, another letter was collectively written and signed by operators and owners representing 75 gym locations in total—including Robyn Raboutou of ABC Kids Climbing, Jon Lachelt of Ascent Studio, Ian Anderson of Climb So Ill, Jon Shepard of First Ascent, Jason Haas of G1, Ian McIntosh of Mesa Rim, Wes Shih of Sender One, Kristin Horowitz of The Pad, Jeffery Bowling of Touchstone, and others. “To be abundantly clear: We oppose the USA Climbing gym project as currently envisioned,” the recent letter stated. “We cannot and do not support a poorly vetted, unilaterally executed decision by USA Climbing to radically shift its direction from its core mission to undertake a commercial endeavor that conflicts with USA Climbing’s own non-profit structure, history of grassroots development of competition climbing, and cooperation with the national commercial climbing gym community.”
That recent letter by myriad gym operators also elucidated gyms’ concerns related to “a growing inability of USA Climbing leadership to manage its operations, communicate with and serve its constituents, and carry out its core mission and primary responsibilities – all with an absence of accountability.”
The situation remains ongoing, with those aforementioned gym operators requesting that USA Climbing pause the National Training Center development project for the time being. According to the December 28 letter, “there is currently a USA Climbing Board meeting scheduled for January 3rd, where the Board plans to discuss and approve what USA Climbing plans to present to the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency on January 9th for the purpose of receiving a site for the gym project.”
Stay tuned to CBJ for updates and further coverage of this story.
Climbing Business Journal is an independent news outlet dedicated to covering the indoor climbing industry. Here you will find the latest coverage of climbing industry news, gym developments, industry best practices, risk management, climbing competitions, youth coaching and routesetting. Have an article idea? CBJ loves to hear from readers like you!