published Sunday, October 13th, 2013

The Block parties: New climbing walls premiere Saturday at River Rocks finale (with video)

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    Swimmers leave the starting point of the Swim the Suck race at the Suck Creek boat ramp on Saturday.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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    Captain Jack Wheeler lights the flame in a hot air ballon during the River Rocks Saturday finale.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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    Molly O'Brien demos the new outdoor climbing wall at High Point Climbing and Fitness downtown on Saturday. High Point Fitness is located where the Majestic Theater use to be. O'Brien is the daughter of one of the owners of High Point.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
    enlarge photo

John O'Brien gestured out toward Broad Street where people in a crowd of 2,000 watched Molly, O'Brien's 22-year-old daughter, work handle by handle up the new exterior climbing wall at High Point Climbing and Fitness on Saturday.

O'Brien pointed out the upturned faces, some anxious, some totally lost in the climb -- but all interested. It's why he isn't second-guessing the $3.5 million he invested in the new climbing facility.

"No doubt," he said. "People are interested in this all over the United States."

The open house at High Point was one of the things RiverRocks, River City Co. and Chattanooga Presents organizers planned to top off the Scenic City's string of adventure sports games that began over a week ago.

RiverRocks competitors from all over made their way into The Block -- the designation given to Broad Street between the Tennessee Aquarium and Third Street.

The balcony and exterior climbing walls stand three stories above Broad Street. The wall Molly scaled Saturday afternoon is one of three amateur walls with auto belay mechanics. Five more climbing walls -- two speed racing and three advanced technique -- will round out the exterior climbing facilities when it's finished and open to the public.

Hopefully in 42 days, O'Brien told one anxious customer.

"It's just astounding how many world-class athletes have come to Chattanooga," said Ann Ball, operations manager with Chattanooga Presents.

She and other Chattanooga Presents organizers were making on-the-fly adjustments Saturday evening, with the buzz of crowds and street musicians around them. This year, the River Rocks finale moved from Coolidge Park into downtown.

Ball said the events went better than ever. More medal competitors came out than ever, she said, and being on Broad Street also made the events -- complete with video of events and hot air balloon lighting -- more inclusive with the city than ever.

"There's always something to do in Chattanooga," said Ball, a lifelong resident. "And how often do you get to see Booker T. Jones" perform?

It is all working into the plans of RiverRocks and Chattanooga Presents organizers to be "the fall's premier sporting event."

Mark McKnight, marketing director at Rock/Creek, watched the crowds of people swirl around Broad Street on the opening day of downtown's Rock/Creek store.

"It does say to our industry that Chattanooga is worth paying attention to -- there's something going on here," he said.

Nearby, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke snapped a photo with his phone of the street below High Point's climbing balcony.

McKnight imagines a day when bleachers are set up in the street facing the new climbing walls, and ESPN cameras cut to a shot of the Tennessee Aquarium at sunset, with paddleboarders coming in from the river.

"Think X-Games," he said. "This is the kind of thing that could really put Chattanooga on the map. I've been up here for an hour just watching people look at [the climbing walls]."

Boulder, Colo., of the east? Forget that, McKnight said. "We're doing our own thing here."

Ball echoed the feeling.

"I think Boulder ought to want to be the Chattanooga of the West," she said.

And don't forget, she said, the weather is better here anyway.

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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