SLC withholds loan to climbing gym as squabble erupts over proposed home for USA Climbing

Utah’s capital wants The Front Climbing Club to start getting along with the national organization.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Climbers practice at the current Salt Lake City home of USA Climbing, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Salt Lake City wants the largest climbing gym within its borders and competition climbing’s most powerful national organization to get along, and it’s using a little muscle to do it.

In a Thursday letter to The Front Climbing Club, city Redevelopment Agency Director Danny Walz informed owner Dustin Buckthal that the city would withhold a $2 million loan the RDA approved last month.

The letter came after the gym fervently opposed a deal between the city and USA Climbing for a new headquarters, training center and public gym near The Gateway.

“Your actions raise concerns that we need to resolve before we continue to move forward on your loan,” Walz wrote. “Consequently, we are pausing progress on your loan at this time.”

In December, the RDA board — made up of members of the City Council — unanimously approved a loan to The Front that would help expand the gym’s main campus at 1470 S. 400 West. The gym sought the aid after struggling to secure funding from a bank.

At the same time, the city was gearing up to move forward with a proposal that would have landed USA Climbing at the corner of 500 West and 300 South in the Station Center area, a swath between the Rio Grande Depot and Utah Transit Authority intermodal hub. The area has been envisioned as a bustling neighborhood of dense housing, and the city considered USA Climbing’s facility “catalytic” to that concept.

When it became clear the facility faced opposition from local and national gym owners, however, the RDA pulled the draft lease from its Jan. 9 agenda. The agency, according to a spokesperson, wanted to allow USA Climbing “time to work with gym operators to hopefully find a solution that is agreeable to all parties.”

The Front responds to SLC

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Climbers train at the current USA Climbing facility in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Buckthal said in an interview he supports USA Climbing’s construction of an elite facility; it’s the building of a publicly accessible training center that he staunchly opposes.

He also doesn’t see why that opposition would prevent his business from receiving a city loan.

“It’s fine to have disagreements on what the best use of funds are or what this training center’s commercial aspect will do to the organization. That’s what’s happening right now, is that discussion at [USA Climbing] level [and] at the industry level,” Buckthal said. “But now I can’t even oppose the idea of the training center without it impacting my business. What’s going to happen when it’s actually here?”

Walz wrote that Buckthal has attempted to “quash” the USA Climbing project by asserting the community is unable to support additional climbing gyms. That position, Walz contends, seemingly conflicts with the position Buckthal took when he asked for public money, citing growth potential in the market.

The city worked on The Front loan and the USA Climbing project at the same time, Walz wrote, because officials believed Utah’s population growth could support both. Buckthal has tried to create a narrative, Walz wrote, that the two ventures can’t coexist.

“Your actions have put the RDA in a position where it cannot support two diametrically opposed projects,” he wrote. “As such, we are pausing progress on your loan as we consider your claims that the mutual success of both the expansion of The Front and USA Climbing’s [national training center] is impossible. If this is the case, then our original understanding of your project was misconceived, and we need to reexamine that understanding.”

Buckthal said construction on The Front’s expansion is already underway, and losing the funding could leave him in a lurch. “I don’t know what we’re going to do” if the city revokes its loan, he said, “but this puts us in a really bad spot.”

According to Walz’s letter, there is apparently one way to unpause that paused loan: Get along.

“While we work through our concerns,” he wrote, “we strongly encourage you to work cooperatively with USA Climbing on mutually beneficial solutions so we can resume moving forward.”

As Buckthal sees it, though, only one amicable solution exists: “Build a center without a commercial climbing gym.”

USA Climbing faces opposition

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Climbers train at the current practice facility for USA Climbing in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Gym owners largely agree that the industrial warehouse currently leased by USA Climbing near 800 South and 500 West in the Granary District is a disservice to the country’s elite climbers. Athletes who have won World Cups and harbor visions of Olympic medals should not have to step over a small pond of melted snow to access a bouldering wall or cut across a dark parking lot to use the restroom.

Yet when it comes to bringing in paying customers to a facility partially funded by tax dollars — one that would be less than three miles from two other climbing gyms — several gym owners and operators say that’s none of USA Climbing’s business.

Part of the concern, Buckthal insists, is for the good of USA Climbing. He fears the organization may founder trying to support itself with a public gym that would compete with more established gyms.

“There’s pretty significant concern that this project will bankrupt the organization,” Buckthal said. “It’s a huge climbing gym they want to build. It’s almost twice the size of The Front location. It’s very close to The Front and, generally, that’s just a really big climbing gym to try and support.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jesse Grupper, a professional climber for USA Climbing who will compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris, practices at the current Salt Lake City home of USA Climbing on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Buckthal said he has known for more than a year that USA Climbing intended to build a new headquarters that could potentially include public climbing. It wasn’t until early December, after he learned the organization had secured $15 million in funding from the Utah Legislature, that he and two other officials at The Front decided to voice their opposition to the project in a letter to USA Climbing’s board of directors. The letter asserted USA Climbing’s facility “is a direct threat to the local businesses that have long supported USAC and the local Utah communities.”

Then, on Dec. 28, nearly two dozen gym owners representing 75 gyms from Iowa to California also sent a letter to the board of directors accusing USA Climbing of “years of clandestine discussions and unsanctioned lobbying without the solicitation of input or buy-in from its constituents,” and threatening to refuse to host USA Climbing competitions.

Why USAC wants a new training center

(Salt Lake City) A rendering of the proposed USA Climbing headquarters and training facility at 300 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City.

If only Marc Norman, CEO of USA Climbing, could build a time machine, he thinks he could smooth the whole issue over.

First, he said, he would travel forward. There, he said he would show gym owners that USA Climbing’s plan would not only work but also “raise all ships” by creating more interest in the sport and fostering youth involvement. That, in turn, could translate into more memberships and more competitions locally and across the country.

Then Norman would travel into the past and ignore the advice he said he received from fundraising experts to keep the organization’s plans quiet until it had most of the financial backing it needed to bring it to fruition. Not only did gym owners balk about being kept in the dark, but the Athletes’ Advisory Committee also sent USA Climbing’s board a letter protesting the athletes’ lack of involvement and input.

“In hindsight, we could have, and now clearly should have, engaged with the community more, even though that wasn’t the ‘best practice,’” he said. “If I could turn my clock back about two years, this would have been a really public-facing conversation.”

(Salt Lake City) A rendering of the proposed USA Climbing headquarters and training facility at 300 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City.

USA Climbing’s plans for the facility are as mobile as the plastic holds screwed into a bouldering wall, Norman said. He emphasized, however, that the public feature of the facility is central to the success of the project, as well as to its funding.

In its current iteration, according to city records, the facility would include a new building measuring 65 to 75 feet tall and would feature bouldering, lead- and speed-climbing walls. It would also sport locker rooms and dedicated training and recovery areas for elite and para athletes.

USA Climbing expects it would be able to host about five national and international competitions a year, with space for up to 5,000 spectators outside and more than 1,000 inside. The organization would also rehabilitate the historic Salt Lake Mattress Co. building at the site and outfit it with offices and space to shop and grab a bite or a drink.

The RDA proposes a 99-year lease for the site with no payments for the first six years and a move to a discounted rate later. It would also kick in $1 million toward an outdoor plaza and $6 million to rehab the Salt Lake Mattress building, while helping to cover the costs of demolition and environmental cleanup. The city also is considering a $31 million parking garage that it would lease to USA Climbing.

(Salt Lake City) A rendering of the proposed USA Climbing headquarters and training facility at 300 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City.

City officials view it’s a good deal for Utah’s capital, too. The project, according to city records, would spur development in the area, attract visitors, give the neighborhood an identity and allow those who may not otherwise have access to the sport to give climbing a try.

Most areas of the proposed facility would also be open for the public to climb. That would include a commercial gym, which is expected to offer memberships on a sliding scale, as well as a “beginner mezzanine” for youth groups. Norman said he would like to offer a program similar to Ski Utah’s Passport Program for fourth through sixth graders, except for climbing.

Norman said USA Climbing promised public programs when it asked the Legislature for funding. If the organization doesn’t follow through, he warned, it might have to give back some of that money.

For his part, Buckthal reiterated that he has doubts the project would pencil out financially for USA Climbing as it is currently planned.

He said he expressed his concerns about the public access portion to the RDA as soon as he learned it was involved, and insisted he was always told that the project wasn’t connected to his loan.

“There’s a saying that keeps going around about, you know, all ships rise,” he said. “But they’re really just going to sink all the ships.”

(Salt Lake City) A rendering of the proposed USA Climbing headquarters and training facility at 300 South and 500 West in Salt Lake City.