RDA withholds $2M loan from The Front climbing gym for opposing city’s effort to build a new national training center

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In a get-tough letter to The Front climbing gym dated January 18, Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency Director Danny Walz informed CEO/CFO Dustin Buckthal that the Front’s $2 million expansion loan, approved by the RDA Board in December, has been tabled.

Rendering of The Front expansion at 1470 South 400 West in the Ballpark neighborhood.

Since the loan approval on December 12, 2023, Walz wrote, “you have taken actions that are incompatible with the public benefits and community-building we aim to support.”

We reported the USA Climbing HQ and national training center project yesterday, including protests from the local and national climbing community, and the RDA’s letter arrived today.

Specifically, Walz chastises Buckthal for hardening his opposition to USA Climbing’s HQ and national training center project that also includes a for-profit component that will run a facility open to the public at 310 South 500 West.

“Since your letter to USA Climbing [USAC, dated December 10], your opposition to the NTC project has expanded from a narrow opposition to the commercial gym component to opposing the project wholesale.”

Buckthal denied that assertion categorically. “Our position hasn’t changed. We’re not in opposition to the facility holding events or being an Olympic training center. What we have a big problem with is the public part, the selling of memberships and day passes,” he told us. “That’s the lifeblood of climbing gyms.”

The RDA claims there’s space for all

RDA Director Walz asserts that Buckthal’s loan application touted the potential for local growth of climbing gyms in the Salt Lake market, but that he has now changed his tune.

The RDA holds “the belief in the strength of the local climbing community and Utah’s population growth to sustain the NTC alongside existing for-profit climbing facilities, including The Front.”

“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.”

“Your actions have put the RDA in a position where it cannot support two diametrically opposed projects,” Walz asserted.

The RDA doesn’t have sophisticated market projections for their belief, but cites an article in Climbing Business News that reports nationwide trends from 2022.  In a somewhat somber tone, the article states that 2022 brought “only 36 new climbing gyms in the United States, 20 fewer new gyms than 2021. The resulting net climbing gym growth rate of 4.9 percent was in fact the second lowest growth rate since 2010.”

Images courtesy Climbing Business News.

Buckthal, for his part, worries about “a facility twice the size opening up in the same neighborhood as two other gyms. They’re getting significant public subsidies in the form of grants and write-downs, and my offer is a LOAN.”

In addition, he asserts, “USAC has specifically said they’re going to undercut our prices,” and provided an email where USAC CEO Marc Norman states that his membership price-point is projected to be between Momentum gym on the lower end and The Front on the higher end.

Economic impact?

Part of the RDA’s case for the city’s $>7.3 million subsidy to USAC is the positive economic impact that the project will have on the neighborhood and the city.

But the scope of that impact is uncertain. Amanda Greenland of the RDA responded that “The public, multi-day events that host athletes from across the globe will introduce the sport to people in the greater community who may not have had previous exposure to climbing. There is great potential for inspiring a new generation of climbers and growing the local community.”

Buckthal is doubtful. “The city has been hosting USAC events for 10 years now, That audience is already here, along with the associated economic impact. To say that there will be an economic impact because of events and the training center is pretty hollow.”

A solution in the works?

The RDA says they “commend and support USAC for trying to work with those parties to be able to find a solution that is agreeable to all.”

Buckthal called that engagement “hollow at best.” According to him, officers of The Front met with the CEO of USAC in early November, and have continued emails and proposing meeting times since then. But Buckthal insists that local business concerns have never been directly addressed, and no alternatives have been presented. “Basically, they just told us they were going to do it.”

Rendering of the USA Climbing’s HZ and national training center at 300 South and 500 West.

As to the $2 million loan to the Front that has been “paused” by the RDA?

“We’re in construction right now, in dire need of the cash, and shoestringing it,” Buckthal stated. “It’s a really bad situation.”

Editor’s note: This post has been updated.

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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.