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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A new climbing gym is poised to rise along the Spokane River as city prepares to sell a slice of Riverfront Park

Prime real estate adjacent to Spokane Falls that was a parking lot for decades would be transformed into a climbing gym with 70-foot walls under a City Hall proposal.

The city of Spokane is partnering with a Utah-based company to build the gym on park property on the north shore of the Spokane River, on the corner of Monroe and Summit Boulevard.

The climbing gym would be the keystone feature in a city plan to develop a 3.5-mile trail system that will run along the south shore of the river through Peaceful Valley, cross the Sandifur Bridge and connect with the Centennial Trail on the north shore.

Spokane Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley called the gym a “spectacular architectural feature” designed to “make it a really compelling trail head.”

But the proposal faces some obstacles.

The deal, which would involve the sale of what’s now city park land to a private developer, could violate the City Charter, which requires the public to vote on the sale of park land.

Dustin Buckthal, a Utah climbing gym owner and gym developer, is tapped to develop and run the climbing gym. Buckthal co-owns Vertical Solutions, a Salt Lake based company that has developed gyms throughout the United States. Buckthal also owns the Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City. He said the Spokane project will be modeled after that gym. A local couple, Allison and Jess Roskelley, will be co-owners.

The gym will have about 20,000 square feet of climbing surface, about 4,000 of which will be set aside for bouldering. The project is expected to break ground late this summer or in the early fall, Buckthal said. The sale price of the land hasn’t been determined, but Buckthal anticipates the project costing between $8 million and $10 million. Construction will take between 12 and 14 months. Currently, the city is installing a stormwater tank in the Bosch Lot.

The building, which will be between 25,000 and 30,000 square feet will have a “heavy” base story mimicking the “basalt that creates the foundation of Spokane,” Buckthal said. The rest of the building will be “light and airy, like the spray of the falls.”

Jess Roskelley, a mountain climber sponsored by Adidas, knows Buckthal through the outdoors community. Jess is the son of former county commissioner and renowned mountaineer John Roskelley.

“I suggested the need for a larger more modern gym,” Jess Roskelley said, adding later, “It’s been a dream of mine for quite some time to have a space for Spokane to be able to have big competitions.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart and Mayor David Condon toured the Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake earlier this year. Stuckart said he was impressed with what he saw.

The gym will be Spokane’s third climbing gym. The Bloc Yard Bouldering Gym opened in north Spokane in March. Wild Walls, Spokane’s first climbing gym, opened in 1995.

The Riverfront Park Master Plan calls specifically for a public-private development for “park-owned property as ‘climbing gym.’ ”

Josh Jackman, a Spokane businessman and youth climbing coach, said he was in discussions with the city in 2013 to potentially build a climbing gym at the Bosch Lot. At the time, city staff told Jackman that there would be no parking available for the gym. That made the deal all but impossible, Jackman said.

The new project will include 115 parking spots just north of the Bosch Lot.

“It was a bummer,” he said of the deal falling through.

Jackman isn’t sure if Spokane can support three gyms, although he points out that it’s an active, outdoor town with a sizable college-student population.

“How that’s going to translate, I’m not sure,” he said.

Todd Mires, longtime manager of Wild Walls, isn’t optimistic.

“I think I’m going to have to look for a new job,” Mires said.

He doesn’t think Spokane can support three climbing gyms, “especially when one is being designed intentionally to put us under.”

The proximity of the new gym seems like a hostile move to Mires.

“You’re not trying to share the community, you’re trying to take over our business,” Mires said. “Building that blocks away from us there is just no way we can survive.”

Like Salt Lake City, Allison Roskelley believes that Spokane can support three climbing gyms. And, the new gym will offer more than just climbing – it will have a workout area, yoga and Pilates – all while providing a sort of community center for outdoor enthusiasts.

“The goal is to really reach out to people who are really interested in that outdoor lifestyle,” she said.

Additionally, Buckthal said more climbing gyms increase demand. Paired with the increasing popularity of indoor climbing, he thinks it’s possible for Spokane to support three gyms.

“The kinds of gyms that we build attract a much larger demographic than climbers,” he said.

Over the last decade, indoor climbing gyms have exploded onto the fitness and business scenes. Last year, 27 new gyms opened in the U.S., representing a 7 percent increase. Since 2012, the climbing gym industry has grown, on average, 9 percent per year, according to industry magazine Climbing Business Journal.

Growth for 2017 is anticipated to top 10 percent. Part of that growth, according to Climbing Business Journal, can be attributed to climbing’s planned debut as an Olympic sport in 2020.

Officials hope to work around the provision in the City Charter prohibiting the sale of park land without approval of voters by transferring the land from the parks department to other city departments before it’s sold to a developer.

Former City Councilman Steve Eugster believes that maneuver will violate the city’s charter, which he helped write.

“It’s a clear no,” he said.

According to the city’s charter: “Neither the park board nor the city council shall have the power to sell or exchange any existing park or portion thereof without the prior approval of the electorate given by a majority vote at the next ensuing general municipal election or special municipal election.”

The deal doesn’t violate the city’s charter, said Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief finance officer, because the land was never used as a park.

“I think we are meeting the intent of the original use,” Cooley said.

However, Cooley said if it is determined that the land swap violates the charter, the city and Buckthal would be open to alternate options such as leasing.

Park Board President Chris Wright said the park board plans to agree to the land transfer.

“If I thought this was a clear violation of the charter I would be telling my fellow Park Board members that, and urging them not to go forward,” he said.

But Eugster said it doesn’t matter that the land was a parking lot since it was acquired to become part of Riverfront Park.

“It was intended as park property, it was just being used by the city as a parking lot,” he said. “They’re wrong. They’re wrong.”

Since its purchase in 1974, the lot has been used for parking. The property was acquired by the city in 1975 via eminent domain following Expo ’74.

At the time, the property owners, Donald J. and Carol A. Bosch fought the acquisition, according to court documents. In a suit the city brought against the Bosch family and others in the spring of 1975, the land needed to be condemned and acquired by the city “for park purposes, specifically for the development program known as Central Riverfront Park.”

Since then the money from the parking lot has gone to the parks department.

Regardless of what happens, Buckthal said he’s committed to working with the city to integrate the gym into the overall park plan.

“We’re really excited about the project,” he said. “We’ve really enjoyed working with Spokane city and the leadership there.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on April 13, 2017 to correct the name of Allison Roskelley. The original story used an incorrect first name for her.