RDA’s latest hopes for sparking Station Center delayed by controversy in rock climbing community

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Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA) is close to sealing a deal with the national non-profit for competitive climbing that city leaders hope will serve as catalyst to the long-stalled Station Center project.

The RDA states they have been in negotiations with the organization since early 2023, but the item has remained off the agenda and likely in closed session until now.

Just across the street from the Rio Grande Depot on 500 West, the location is strategically located at what could be the center of west Downtown’s rebuilding. The Station Center assemblage is at the heart of the Depot District, the RDA’s name given to its TIF area bordered by the Depot, the Gateway, I-15, and 400 South.

The RDA’s latest potential development partners, USA Climbing, has plans for a headquarters and national training center on 1.72 acres of RDA land. But it has included a for-profit element to stage national competition events and a large climbing facility open to the public. That has got local climbing gyms—and their allies across the country—up in arms, feeling betrayed by the organization and fearing loss of market share.

Proposed terms for a 99-year lease are set to be approved by the Redevelopment Agency Board – but were pulled from their January agenda at the last minute.

Pre-negotiated lease terms include public benefits, one of which is that “most areas” of the new main structure with climbing walls “will be accessible by the community.”

The agreement also reflects the city’s desire for increased tourism, requiring the facility host “6-10 multi-day events a year.”

Whether the rockslide from business owners and the climbing community will be enough to change USA Climbing’s set route will be seen in the coming weeks. It is currently in negotiations with the climbing community and business owners while the RDA has put the item on hold.

There’s a lot at stake for the RDA, which may lose out on the entire deal, scale back its demands for public access to the facility’s amenities, or run afoul of local businesses in a market niche that the city aims to grow.

Let’s take a look at the outlines of the project and controversy so far.

Proposed project

USA Climbing (USAC) moved from Boulder, CO to Salt Lake City’s Depot District in 2018 and for the last five years has been working to establish a national training center in the area.

At approximately 310 South 500 West on 1.72 acres In west Downtown, USAC plans a campus anchored by a new primary structure “about 65-75 feet tall with a roughly 45,000 sf footprint,” according to RDA documents. The new building will include “bouldering, lead, and speed climbing walls, as well as other support uses that are typical of a climbing facility.” The exterior wall of the building would also be used for climbing.

Courtesy SLC RDA.

Importantly, the RDA and Utah state government have been promised that “most areas of the facility will be accessible by the community; some spaces will be reserved for the U.S. National Team’s exclusive use,” according to RDA documents.

In addition, the city hopes it has found an end-user for the historic Salt Lake Mattress Company building, which the RDA owns and spent $865,000 to stabilize after the March 2020 earthquake.

The bow-truss building will be “rehabilitated” and “anticipated to include publicly facing and accessible food, beverage, and retail uses, as well as private spaces for USA Climbing offices.”

Third, the USAC national training center campus will include an outdoor plaza that will be “utilized for USA Climbing-hosted competitions as well as other non-USA Climbing events, and will be designed to accommodate 3,500 – 5,000 spectators.”

The city’s level of subsidy? It’s offering the USAC $7.3 million to help build the main structure, rehab the mattress factory, and construct the plaza. That’s on top of the $15 million the non-profit scored from the Legislature in 2023.

Lease terms

The city’s terms of a 99-year lease with a 50-year renewal option seem generous, and reflect value that hasn’t been included in the $7.3 million figure cited above.

For the first six years, the RDA will charge nothing. Then, at year seven, lease rates will start at 45% of market value, and be increased 5% each five years until it reaches 60% of market value at year 10, where they will stay until year 99. Rates will also be escalated according to inflation.

USA Climbing will not have to pay for a lease on the outdoor plaza and stadium space.

Local business opposition

In a story followed by Climbing Business Journal, the USAC is getting roasted by much of its own constituency.

Climbers and climbing gym owners and operators say that they enthusiastically support the establishment of HQ and national training center in Salt Lake City. Their problem: the commercial sides of the project and the lack of transparency and inclusion in USAC’s decision-making process for the center.

In a letter dated December 10, the Front climbing club reminded USAC of the club’s generosity toward the federation in the past. It claims to have offered free and reduced memberships for USAC staff and athletes (estimated at $40,000 in 2023 alone) and its facilities at a break-even or at-loss rate for hosting recent federation events.

The Front announced that it will no longer host those events given USAC’s plans to build a commercial gym at the new center. Officers from the Front, whose Salt Lake City location recently received a $2 million loan from the RDA, wrote:

“USAC has pursued operating a 45,000-65,000 sq. ft. commercial mega-gym mere blocks from The Front’s headquarters and The Salt Lake Bouldering Project, heavily funded by grants and taxpayer money.

“USAC has represented to the Utah Legislature that it expects on a ‘regular commercial use side 3,000 members and over 300,000 visits per year’, with an unspecified amount ‘open to the public with a sliding fee scale, including no cost for those with economic need – ensuring access for all.’

“Experience dictates that most of these 3,000 members will come from The Front and other local, established commercial gyms’ paying membership base (just ask us or Salt Lake Bouldering Project about downtown market saturation).”

In addition, the federation received a letter from 75 owners and operators of gyms nationwide expressing disdain for the project as proposed.

The letter complained of a “poorly-vetted and unilateral decision to radically shift its core mission to undertake a commercial endeavor that conflicts with USA Climbing’s own non-profit structure, history of grassroots development of competition climbing, and cooperation with the national commercial climbing gym community.”

RDA reaction

Amanda Greenland, Communications and Outreach Manager for the RDA, told us that they pulled the agreement from the Board meeting’s agenda in order “to provide USAC leadership and its board some additional time to work with a group of for-profit climbing gyms that are protesting the building of USAC’s National Training Center in SLC, citing concern that its presence will cut into their market share.”

“We commend and support USAC for trying to work with those parties to hopefully find a solution that is agreeable to all.”

Sticking to the public benefits and accessibly terms of the outlined agreement with USA Climbing, Greenland reflected the RDA’s belief that there’s room enough for all in the Salt Lake climbing gym market.

“We remain fully committed to the USAC project,” Greenland stated, “and believe the strength of the local climbing community and Utah’s population growth will sustain its National Training Center alongside existing for-profit climbing facilities.”

The RDA hopes the item will return to the RDA Board’s agenda “in the near future.”

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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.