published Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

Climbing to new heights: High Point to add children's gym

High Point Climbing and Fitness associate Andrew Balog climbs as an expansion announcement of The Block on occurs below on Friday. The Block will be adding a children's area.
High Point Climbing and Fitness associate Andrew Balog climbs as an expansion announcement of The Block on occurs below on Friday. The Block will be adding a children's area.
Photo by Dan Henry.

HIGH POINT CLIMBING AND FITNESS

AVERAGE CLIMBERS PER DAY

150 - December 2013

180 - January 2014

205 -February 2014

215 - March 2014 (projected)

Source: Johnny O'Brien

Nine-year-old Garrett Allsen craned his neck back to gape at the top of the clear blue climbing wall that hangs off the side of downtown development The Block on Broad Street.

A climber was picking his way up the wall, and Allsen was itching to join him. The view from the top, he thought, would be epic.

"It's awesome," he said. "I would pause and look around. I'm not afraid of heights."

He's been climbing for two years at a competing gym across town, mom Julie Allsen said.

"And he just said, 'I want to come here!'" she said, laughing. "This is definitely up his alley."

Kids like Garrett will have even more reason to visit High Point Climbing and Fitness in a few more months. The flagship tenant of the $7.5 million development announced Friday that it will build a 3,000 square foot climbing gym just for children next door to its main facility in The Block.

"We were surprised by how many kids were coming, so we wanted to build a zone just for them," High Point Climbing and Fitness owner Johnny O'Brien said.

The separate gym will include interactive climbing walls and a bouldering area aimed exclusively at kids, and will fill up the remaining empty space in The Block, which is owned by River City Company and also includes a Rock/Creek Outfitters store and, soon, a Chattz Coffee shop.

It's been a long road for the signature site, first announced in 2012. Costs ballooned from an initial estimate of $4 million to an actual investment of $7.5 million, and the project was delayed for months because of tricky construction challenges -- like digging a 20-foot pit into the basement of the old Bijou Theatre to build a 40-foot tall climbing wall.

But the first four months of business have been good, better than expected, O'Brien said. The gym has already attracted 670 members, who pay anything from $40 to $80 a month. And just 20 percent of High Point's revenue comes from members, said partner and general manager John Wiygul.

The rest comes from tourists and casual climbers, drawn to The Block's location in the heart of Chattanooga's tourism district.

"We're able to draw a large number of non-typical users to our climbing facility," O'Brien said. "Most are in the warehouse district out of town, in lower-cost space, and they draw the true climbing community. But we're in the middle of downtown so we draw tourists, business people."

Still, O'Brien spent $4.5 million to build out High Point Climbing and Fitness's space in The Block, and he doesn't expect to be repaid any time soon.

"Probably 20 years," he said, then laughed. "Of course I want to make a profit and repay my investment back. But if it takes 20 years to pay me back instead of 10, that's fine. I'm not as interested in quickly getting my investment back as I am having a cool attraction in the middle of downtown."

The Block's other major tenant, Rock/Creek Outfitters, spent a lot less money to get their space up and running. The outdoor retailer has been open since October 2013 in The Block and so far, business has been about what owner Dawson Wheeler expected.

"We've been steady and we're hitting our goals," he said. "We're four-and-a-half months into our cycle and we're way into the fact-finding on our assortments and what the customer wants. We're seeing a lot of what we expected but we're also learning as we go."

The product mix at his location in The Block is about 35 percent different from his other Rock/Creek stores, Wheeler added. There's an obvious emphasis on climbing gear -- since the store is in the same building as High Point -- but he also keeps it stocked with urban products like courier bags, boots and coats.

"You're not going to see backpacks, sleeping bags and tents at The Block," he said. "We don't want to cannibalize what we have at the North Shore."

The Block's third and final tenant, Chattz Coffee, is expected to open shop in The Block this spring. The shop will be Chattz's second downtown location. After the coffee shop is up and running, Funtopia will be the final remaining piece in the $7.5 million dollar puzzle.

It's a puzzle that Wheeler said makes sense for Chattanooga.

"Our downtown," he said, "has gone from being a moth to a butterfly."

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at sbradbury@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6525.

about Shelly Bradbury...

Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...

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