In the November 2019 election, Teton County voters approved $22 million via the SPET initiative’s Proposition #9, for “Teton County/Jackson Recreation Center Expansion and Renovation, Community Climbing Gym, King Street Extension, and Stormwater Treatment.” 

The expansion allocates 5,750 square feet of space for the climbing gym. It also includes a ball court, multi-purpose and exercise equipment studios, outdoor climbing boulders, two community health consultation rooms, a drop-in daycare for Rec Center users, a study lounge, a birthday party room, an outdoor aquatic splash pad and a 200-yard indoor walking track that will permit physical activity during winter and inclement weather. This will be particularly valuable for our seniors.

Our community is a function of its residents, and their willingness to participate in the public process. As the coordinator of the Teton Boulder Project, I’m also aware of the power of community engagement to produce an outcome inspired, informed, and improved by the community it is built to serve. 

Ten years ago, we developed the Teton Boulder Park with a public-private partnership between Town and County elected officials, the Parks and Recreation Department and the climbing community.

The result—a unique tribute to Jackson’s climbing heritage and the most popular amenity in Parks and Recreation’s catalogue—convinced me of the value created when community members are welcomed into the process of shaping a community asset.

Last winter, I developed The Teton Climbers’ Coalition to celebrate the past, present and future of Teton climbing. As part of our efforts, we conducted more than 70 hours of research on climbing facilities around the country, identifying best practices that we’ve shared with the Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation Department in order to ensure the climbing gym meets the community’s needs. 

Our research indicates that the current allocation of 5,750 square feet of space for the climbing gym will create what is known in the industry as a negative user experience. This in turn will result in a waste of taxpayer money. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. The climbing gym should be bigger—and it can be bigger while still accommodating, and in some cases improving upon, the other amenities. Here’s why.

The Enclosure Climbing Gym, which closed in 2014, had 10,000 square feet of climbing space. When it shut its doors, The Enclosure had 700 members, generated $500,000-700,000/year in revenue and had up to 50-100 people in the facility at any given time. 

Since then, no private-market solutions for a climbing gym have emerged. This is a function of the high cost of Jackson real estate, and a population base too small (23,081 in 2019) to make a climbing gym economically viable.

Canada’s premier mountaineering town, Canmore, has a population of 13,992. Similar to Jackson, the real estate market in Canmore is expensive. 

Canmore opened its Elevation Place climbing gym in its community rec center in 2013. It has 11,000 square feet of climbing surface. 

Because it’s part of a community rec center, Elevation Place has thousands of members. 

“We should have made our gym bigger because there’s always a wait list,” said Brian Spear, the Climbing Coordinator for the Town of Canmore. “People who work M-F 9-5 are always on it. It’s too busy for a positive experience, so we make them wait.”

An appropriately sized rec center climbing gym will not only create a positive user experience. It will create a safe venue for our kids that’s open after school, on the weekends and during times, such as summers, when schools are closed. 

A good gym will also connect our kids to a physically beneficial and healthy pursuit that will last the rest of their lives, and introduce them to positive role models and a lifestyle congruent with Jackson Hole’s legacy as the epicenter of American mountaineering. 

Allocating an appropriate amount of space to the gym is essential to making this happen.

Our community climbing gym will have more users than the Enclosure for a couple of reasons: climbing’s popularity is exploding (from 2012-2017, the growth of the indoor climbing wall industry was 39% greater than that of the gym, health, and fitness clubs industry over the same period), and the gym will be located close to the tourist hot spot of downtown, which will drive additional traffic. 

Climbing’s increasing popularity is being driven by films like the Oscar-Award winning Free Solo and the inclusion of climbing in the Tokyo Olympics—but there’s another factor behind the growth as well. 

People go to gyms out of guilt. They climb because it’s fun. 

And it’s fun for the whole family. 

Rich Johnston, President of Vertical World, Inc., built the country’s first climbing gym in 1987. He’s still building them.

“This morning, a member called me,” he said. “He has a daughter who just got into climbing. He said, ‘You know, we do all sorts of sports in our family. When she plays soccer, I sit in the bleachers and watch. It’s not engaging. 

“‘Climbing is the best family thing we’ve done.’”

And climbing can be more than just a family friendly activity that addresses conditions such as obesity (more than 40% of Americans are now obese), social isolation and loneliness—which some researchers indicate are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

Climbing is a lifetime sport. You can do it when you’re 8, and you can do it when you’re 80. Fitness studios address health conditions, too, but climbing gyms do it better for the simple reason that fun is a stronger motivator than guilt.

But building a gym that’s good, and social, and fun requires building one that is large enough to accommodate demand that, thanks to our middle and high school mountaineering clubs and public events like the Town Pump bouldering series, will only grow.

The research we conducted with the Teton Climbers’ Coalition indicates that the optimal size for the Teton County Rec Center climbing gym is 10,000–12,000 square feet. 

How can we do this and still accommodate the other amenities? 

By merging the proposed climbing gym and fitness studios into a single rectangular space. 

The ball court could go on the ground floor of a large rectangular structure in the center of the building. Fitness studios could be placed on the second floor, above the court. 

Birds’ eye view showing the merged amenities.

The outside of the same structure would then serve as the climbing walls. 

Bouldering walls could be placed around the outer perimeter of the space, with the indoor track placed above them. In this iteration, the walking track would be much bigger than previously envisioned.

Imagine Grandma and Grandpa coming to the gym with their kids and grandkids, and walking around the track for exercise, watching the generations climb. How cool is that?

It gets better. The mezzanine entrance could become a vibrant community space all its own, doubling as an amphitheater for events such as film screenings, talks and performances.

Cross-sectional view.

Teton County Parks and Recreation has the opportunity to provide a safe place for kids and families alike to enjoy a lifelong pursuit that creates positive health outcomes and social connections better than regular gyms can do.  

Let’s give the voters what they asked for. Let’s build a climbing gym that’s worthy of Jackson’s legacy as the epicenter of American mountaineering.

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@ 2020 Christian Beckwith for Teton County Commissioner.