Desperate for Station Center success, Redevelopment Agency continues to bully local climbing gym

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The desperate search of Salt Lake City’s RDA to find an anchor for its stalled Station Center development in the Rio Grande neighborhood has reached new heights–or lows–in the last several months. 

In the same week that the RDA unveiled its latest visioning document for Station Center, Building Salt Lake has discovered through public records requests that public officials have continued to play hard ball with The Front climbing gym. 

At 1470 S. 400 West, pressed up against I-15 in the Ballpark neighborhood, The Front is located 10 blocks from the RDA’s reserved site for USA Climbing’s national training center at 300 South and 500 West.

The Front received approval in December for a $2 million RDA loan to expand its Downtown-adjacent facility. In January, that offer was “paused” by the RDA

RDA Director Danny Walz (pictured left) at the time wrote to The Front’s owner Dustin Buckthal, “It continues to be our position that these projects—your gym expansion and the NTC [National Training Center]—can coexist. However, your recent actions attempt to create a narrative that they cannot coexist in our community.” 

Front owner Dustin Buckthal insists that he supports USA Climbing’s national training center project, but without the revenue-generating elements that would put it in direct competition with existing commercial gyms that don’t have the benefit of 501(c)3 non-profit status and significant public subsidy. 

USA Climbing has recently released a Request for Inquiry (RFI), soliciting a commercial gym operator to become its partner in developing and operating the new facility.

The RDA, for its part, maintains that market growth shows that both facilities can co-exist and commercially succeed.

The RDA’s subsidy to USA Climbing is rich. It has offered $7.3 million in construction financing grants as well as what looks to be tens of millions in ground-lease subsidies over its proposed 99-year deal. In January, RDA leadership tabled the RDA Board’s vote to approve those terms.

USA Climbing also received $15 million from the state of Utah in the 2023 legislative session.

Recent communications between RDA leadership and The Front, obtained in a public records request by BSL, show a shift in the RDA’s rhetoric that may be an attempt to shield it from First Amendment violations. Instead of telling The Front to ‘Shut up–or else’ it now insists, ‘Agree with us that we’re not putting you out of business–or else.’ 

Let’s take a look at the recent developments.

From ‘Shut up or else’ to ‘Agree with us or else

Buckthal’s criticism centers on the commercial elements of the project. USA Climbing plans to provide, according to RDA documents, “publicly facing and accessible food, beverage, and retail uses,” as well as memberships sold to the public to the tune of 1200 a year, in addition to offering day passes.

As we reported in January, RDA Director Danny Walz then wrote to Buckthal “Your actions have put the RDA in a position where it cannot support two diametrically opposed projects.”

Whether this directive came from RDA Board leadership or Mayor Mendenhall’s RDA Director is unclear. At the January meeting when the USA Climbing terms were set to be approved, RDA Board Chair and D2 Council Member Alejandro Puy (pictured) was caught on a live mic by a KSL reporter saying “I’m going to throw this out here because it’s a closed meeting — it frustrates me a great deal that some people feel like they can get resources from this government, but not other entities. … It makes me want to pull some of those resources that were allocated.”

Buckthal had just recently gone public with his criticism of the USAC Rio Grande project.

In its latest official communications with Buckthal, the city seems to have changed its message slightly. Likely worried about the possible First Amendment legal fallout from their open threats to retaliate against Buckthal’s position, Walz’s official communications have pivoted from ‘Shut up or else’ to ‘Admit that we’re right, or else.’

RDA: ‘Show us how we’re putting you out of business

Director Walz’s official communications to Buckthal congeal into some main points: 

  • We’re moving ahead with the USA Climbing project
  • We don’t think it will ruin your business
  • If you keep insisting it will put you out of business, then show us those projections
  • If you show that you’re going out of business, then we can’t approve a loan to you

In a letter dated February 9, Walz wrote to Buckthal, “Your assertion that the commercial component of USA Climbing’s proposed National Training Center will threaten The Front Climbing Club is in direct conflict with the profitability and growth projections for your business that you provided to the RDA in your application.”

Buckthal’s plans for The Front’s $5 million expansion project–and approval of its $2 million loan in December–preceded the RDA’s announcement of its partnership with USA Climbing for the parcel in Rio Grande.

Walz continued, “the RDA cannot in good faith use loan program funds to help fund a business expansion project when a business owner, before loan funds are even distributed, claims they will go out of business in the near future.” 

Finally making nice?

Both the RDA and Buckthal confirmed that their communication has continued through the present. 

Whether the RDA is willing to step down from bullying Buckthal, or will cancel his loan, may become apparent soon. Buckthal would not comment on whether The Front is considering a lawsuit for the RDA’s fairly transparent retaliatory actions.

Buckthal said that he has only a skeleton crew working on the project currently, and that without the RDA loan, construction would have to “pause” on phases two and three on the $5 million expansion.

Email Luke Garrott

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Posted by Luke Garrott

Luke Garrott, PhD, has published in The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News, and written features for the Salt Lake City Weekly City Guide and The West View. A former two-term councilman in Salt Lake City's District 4, he lives in Downtown Salt Lake City and grew up in the Chicago area.