No longer just dirt­bags, climbers are in­flu­enc­ing lo­cal economies—in par­tic­u­lar that of Chat­tanooga, Ten­nessee.


Climbing - - CONTENTS - By Julie El­li­son


A new breed of climber has emerged. She has a col­lege de­gree, a 401(k), and ca­reer am­bi­tions. She works as a doc­tor or a coder or an en­gi­neer. She pays rent or a mort­gage, goes to the gym a few days a week, and gets out­side on the week­ends (or not). While this shift has meant for­feit­ing a cer­tain raw­ness, the climb­ing com­mu­nity has also gained a power it never had be­fore. Mov­ing from sub­cul­ture to­ward main­stream has given us a voice in po­lit­i­cal, en­vi­ron­men­tal, and so­cial con­ver­sa­tions. We’re be­ing lis­tened to be­cause we’re now seen as con­tribut­ing mem­bers of so­ci­ety, not as tran­sient ne’er-do-wells. Some of our author­ity is a re­sult of our grow­ing num­bers, sure, but the real lever­age comes from the one thing that must—or so say the purists, the “Amer­ica’s fit home­less” of yes­ter­year—be re­pu­di­ated to be con­sid­ered a true dirtbag: money.

From 1999 to 2003, Drew Bai­ley would drive from Crossville, Ten­nessee, to climb in Chat­tanooga ev­ery few weeks. He loved the sand­stone of Sun­set Rock and Ten­nessee Wall, ar­eas that col­lec­tively of­fer sev­eral hun­dred sin­gle-pitch trad lines. He would spend his days climb­ing, then eat home­made noo­dles and sleep in his truck on the out­skirts of town. He oc­ca­sion­ally spent money on gas and cof­fee. “I wasn’t go­ing to pay $150 for a ho­tel,” Bai­ley says, “and there weren’t places for climbers to stay.” In 2004, he and his wife moved to Chat­tanooga, where they got a job run­ning an event fa­cil­ity on Look­out Moun­tain.

Nine years later, Bai­ley, who’d be­come As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Sport, Out­door Recre­ation, and Tourism Man­age­ment at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga (UTC), found him­self in a meet­ing with the Chat­tanooga Vis­i­tors Bureau (CVB). In his aca­demic role, Bai­ley had con­ducted eco­nomic-impact stud­ies on events like Iron­man and the River­bend Fes­ti­val, and he shared that info with the CVB. In that meet­ing, the topic even­tu­ally turned to climbers. The CVB said they re­al­ized climbers weren’t the same clien­tele they once were—vis­it­ing climbers were spend­ing money on ho­tels, tourist ac­tiv­i­ties, restau­rant meals, and goods from lo­cal shops, but the CVB didn’t know how to mea­sure it. In ad­di­tion, many of those climbers were mov­ing to the city per­ma­nently.

“Look­ing at the small com­mu­nity from [al­most 8 years] of liv­ing in Chat­tanooga, I’ve seen the growth,” says Cody Roney, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the South­east­ern Climbers Coali­tion (SCC). “I meet some­body that just moved here on a weekly ba­sis.”

Dozens of ar­ti­cles have her­alded Chat­tanooga as a top out­door town: Out­side has twice named it the Best Out­door Town (2011 and 2015), and Blue Ridge Out­doors called it the Best Out­door City in

2012. In 2011, two climbers opened The Crash Pad hos­tel, and the area got its third climb­ing gym in late 2013 with the open­ing of High Point Climb­ing. With a low cost of liv­ing, grow­ing food and cul­ture scenes, a tem­per­ate cli­mate, tons of high-qual­ity rock, and the po­ten­tial for open­ing new busi­nesses, Chat­tanooga (pop. 177,571 as of 2016) has the ameni­ties of a larger city with­out the scale and price. Sper­ling’s Best Places cost of liv­ing in­dex lists Chat­tanooga at 87.5, where 100 is the US av­er­age. For com­par­i­son, Boul­der is 178, Bend is 132.5, Bishop is 123.7, and Fayetteville, West Vir­ginia, is 84.3. These climbers fit the ex­act de­mo­graphic of young pro­fes­sion­als that the city wanted to at­tract be­cause of their sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic impact.

Bai­ley him­self fell into this cat­e­gory. He ran the Look­out Moun­tain fa­cil­ity for a year be­fore earn­ing a PhD in Education: Recre­ation, Parks, and Leisure Stud­ies from the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, and then work­ing as an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in Michi­gan. In 2012, UTC hired him, and he was happy to re­turn to the area. “The face of climb­ing is chang­ing, and it can be re­flected in me per­son­ally,” Bai­ley says. “Now I have a ca­reer, a wife, and a kid. I’m still climb­ing, and now it’s a fam­ily af­fair. The en­tire fam­ily needs to be happy, and that means more stuff, more com­fort, and more en­ter­tain­ment.”

Since the early 1990s, var­i­ous Chat­tanooga or­ga­ni­za­tions and busi­nesses have in­vested in the re­gion’s out­door ac­tiv­i­ties—groups like the SCC, The Trust for Public Land, Rock/Creek Out­fit­ters, and The Ad­ven­ture Guild. In 2004, then-mayor Bob Corker launched the Out­door Ini­tia­tive, a plan to make Chat­tanooga an out­door mecca through a stand­alone en­tity, mar­ket­ing, part­ner­ships, and pro­gram­ming. There had al­ways been plenty of peo­ple cham­pi­oning the out­door re­sources of Chat­tanooga, but the mayor’s ini­tia­tive gave it pri­or­ity.

“It’s a story about the peo­ple who loved the crags and trails and put ef­fort in on the ground level long be­fore the rest of us knew what we re­ally had,” Bai­ley says. “They came to­gether to cre­ate a vi­sion for the city.” While this got the ball rolling, it wasn’t un­til re­cently that climbers’ con­tri­bu­tions were rec­og­nized as sig­nif­i­cant driv­ers.

By 2015, Hamil­ton County, of which Chat­tanooga is the county seat, was mak­ing $1 bil­lion a year from tourism, at­trac­tions that in­cluded the Ten­nessee Aquar­ium, scenic spots like Ruby Falls and Rock City, and sport­ing events. That Septem­ber, Bai­ley and his UTC stu­dents started go­ing to Ten­nessee Wall, Sun­set Rock, and Stone Fort (aka Lit­tle Rock City) to sur­vey climbers. The re­searchers went to the park­ing lots, tal­ly­ing li­cense-plate lo­ca­tions to see where they were com­ing from and ask­ing climbers how much money they spent, where they spent it, how long they stayed, etc. The goal was to get con­crete num­bers for lo­cal busi­ness own­ers, res­i­dents, and city of­fi­cials to see.

“Tourism is great un­til it gets an­noy­ing. We have to show peo­ple it’s ben­e­fit­ting them,” Bai­ley says. “We’re mak­ing the ar­gu­ment that climbers and out­door clien­tele tend to buy lo­cal. They’re not stay­ing at the Hil­ton; they’re stay­ing at the lo­cal hos­tel, so the money stays.”

The eco­nomic-impact study found that vis­it­ing climbers (not in­clud­ing res­i­dents, whose spend­ing is con­sid­ered part of the reg­u­lar econ­omy) spent $6.96 mil­lion in Hamil­ton County dur­ing the 2015/16 fall and win­ter sea­son. That to­tal didn’t in­clude impact from ar­eas more than 30 min­utes from down­town, and it re­moved vis­i­tors who wouldn’t pass through Chat­tanooga on their way to the climb­ing site. Fos­ter Falls and Rock­town (in Ge­or­gia), both gen­er­ally con­sid­ered lo­cal to Chat­tanooga, have more vis­i­tors than any other area ex­cept Stone Fort. By ex­tend­ing the ra­dius to in­clude these two spots, the study es­ti­mated $10.3 mil­lion in spend­ing ( see side­bar, p. 71).

These num­bers put dol­lars made from climbers on par with rev­enue from ma­jor spe­cial events held in Chat­tanooga, another boon for area tourism. Held in late sum­mer ev­ery year, Iron­man Chat­tanooga brings in $10 mil­lion, with the race oc­cur­ring in one week­end and many of the par­tic­i­pants stay­ing up to 10 days. Another pop­u­lar spe­cial event is RiverRocks, a multi-day fes­ti­val that com­bines out­door ath­letic ac­tiv­i­ties with live mu­sic. In a sim­i­lar eco­nomic-impact study con­ducted by Bai­ley, RiverRocks 2013, which in­cluded a 50K trail-run­ning race and a mu­sic fes­ti­val, had a di­rect impact of $4.1 mil­lion. In 2015, RiverRocks had nine events and a di­rect impact of $4.9 mil­lion, an es­ti­mate re­searchers called “very con­ser­va­tive.” One event was the Stone Fort por­tion of the Triple Crown Boul­der­ing Se­ries, a three-part out­door boul­der­ing com­pe­ti­tion founded in 2003.

There are two ma­jor dif­fer­ences be­tween these spe­cial events and the steady trickle of climbers over a six-month win­ter sea­son. First, the num­bers in these stud­ies do not ac­count for the cost of stag­ing these events. In con­trast, climb­ing tends to be self-sup­ported, with lit­tle to no cost to any­one but the climber. Sure, there are costs as­so­ci­ated with crag in­fra­struc­ture (sig­nage, trail main­te­nance, park­ing, bath­rooms, etc.), but those funds tend to come from climbers and re­gional non­prof­its. Sim­i­larly, a lot of the work hours re­quired to main­tain the in­fra­struc­ture are done on a vol­un­teer ba­sis. Sec­ond, these events are held on cer­tain dates in spe­cific lo­ca­tions, of­ten re­quir­ing en­tire blocks and roads to be shut down, which can be vex­ing for lo­cals.

“The thing about climbers is that you don’t even see them [when they’re at the crag],” Bai­ley says. The dozen crags in the area spread climbers out as well. “For some­thing like RiverRocks, you must mea­sure the amount of frus­tra­tion per day. How many mil­lions is it worth to shut down whole sec­tions of town for days at a time?”

AFEW MONTHS BE­FORE Bai­ley be­gan his study, re­searchers at Eastern Ken­tucky Univer­sity in Rich­mond had started a sim­i­lar eco­nomic-impact study for the nearby Red River Gorge ( climb­ing

.com/rrge­con­omy). They found that climbers spent $3.6 mil­lion in six coun­ties, three of which ranked as the third, eleventh, and four­teenth poor­est in the coun­try. The most money was spent on food, to­tal­ing al­most $2.3 mil­lion. Both stud­ies also of­fered find­ings that sug­gest climbers are shift­ing to be more ed­u­cated, with higher in-

come lev­els. As the Red River Gorge study reads:

“Find­ing two: De­mo­graphic data con­tra­dicts pre­vail­ing climber stereo­types. Pre­vail­ing myths about rock climbers of­ten sug­gest they are un­e­d­u­cated, un­em­ployed, and con­trib­ute lit­tle to the lo­cal econ­omy. How­ever, over half of re­spon­dents … have col­lege de­grees and one fifth … have ter­mi­nal de­grees such as doc­tor­ates. Most of those who do not have col­lege de­grees are, in fact, col­lege stu­dents.”

In­di­vid­ual in­comes in the Red study in­cluded 22 per­cent earn­ing $30,000 to $49,000, and 33 per­cent earn­ing $50,000 or more. Many of the climbers earn­ing less than $20,000 were noted as full-time col­lege stu­dents. A ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween the Red and Chat­tanooga is that most climbers who visit the Red prob­a­bly won’t move there. In a 2014 study of the Red River Gorge area, coal min­ing and restau­rants were listed as the top two em­ploy­ment sec­tors. The top two ca­reers iden­ti­fied by climbers in the Chat­tanooga study were med­i­cal and tech­nol­ogy, both cen­tral in­dus­tries there. There are min­i­mal job op­por­tu­ni­ties for this new breed of climber in the re­mote Red, plus not much of a cen­tral­ized com­mu­nity. (The Red’s clos­est city is Lex­ing­ton, 1.5 hours away.)

“There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent things that hap­pened in a rel­a­tively re­cent time­frame,” says Charles Wood, the vice pres­i­dent of eco­nomic devel­op­ment for the Chat­tanooga Cham­ber of Com­merce. “The econ­omy is di­verse, and it’s re­ally jumped over the last four or five years.” In 2009, Volk­swa­gen in­vested a bil­lion dol­lars to open a new plant in Chat­tanooga, hir­ing 2,000 peo­ple. As of 2017, the plant em­ploys 3,200. In 2011, the city’s pub­licly owned Elec­tric Power Board of Chat­tanooga (EPB) be­gan to of­fer 1 gi­ga­bit-per-sec­ond In­ter­net, which is 200 times the na­tional av­er­age. Four years later, EPB im­ple­mented a 10-gi­ga­bit-per-sec­ond speed and made it avail­able to all homes and busi­nesses. Chat­tanooga was the first city in the West­ern Hemi­sphere to of­fer this, earn­ing it the nick­name “The Gig City.”

“The Gig got launched, and fiber is a big deal,” Wood says. “It makes our elec­tric grid more re­li­able, which helps all man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als, and it at­tracts in­for­ma­tion, data, and tech com­pa­nies.” Those com­pa­nies can re­cruit na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally be­cause of the sur­round­ing nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment and out­door sports. And it doesn’t hurt that Ten­nessee has no in­come tax on salaries/wages. “You can get a great job and be on a moun­tain bike in 15 min­utes,” Wood says, “and you can do it for half the cost of places like Den­ver.”

MAX POPPEL AND DAN ROSE spent their post­col­lege years work­ing var­i­ous jobs and climb­ing. In 2005, Rose was liv­ing in Boone, North Carolina, while Poppel had just fin­ished up an in­tern­ship in Chat­tanooga. Poppel loved the peo­ple, the mild win­ters, the cost of liv­ing, and everything about the town, so he sug­gested it to Rose.

“We wanted to move here so we could climb ev­ery day,” Rose says. With­out any spe­cific plans, the two friends set­tled in the Scenic City.

The duo had climbed through­out the South, camp­ing at places like Miguel’s in the Red River Gorge and Chat­tanooga’s First Ten­nessee Pav­il­ion. The pav­il­ion is an open-air ware­house down­town that pro­vides camp­ing for the Triple Crown. With con­crete floors and no other ameni­ties, it was the only overnight­ing op­tion other than pricier ho­tels near the city cen­ter. Prim­i­tive camp­ing spots were far from town, and climbers were look­ing for a cen­tral­ized base­camp.

“There [was] no other af­ford­able ac­com­mo­da­tion,” Rose says. “We wanted to make this ad­ven­ture hub a so­cial hub for vis­it­ing climbers.” They took a busi­ness-plan­ning course in 2009, and in sum­mer 2010 took a 2.5-week road trip from San Diego to Seat­tle, stay­ing in hos­tels, tak­ing notes and pic­tures, and talk­ing to man­agers. In 2011 in the South­side his­toric dis­trict, they opened The Crash Pad, which sleeps up to 40 peo­ple and has the tagline “an un­com­mon hos­tel.” Prices are about $35 per night for a bunkbed and $95 for a pri­vate room. The Crash Pad has an out­door space, a full kitchen and food stor­age, free break­fast, and WiFi and com­puter ac­cess. Their clien­tele in­cludes out­door en­thu­si­asts, tourists, and busi­ness trav­el­ers.

“Chat­tanooga is an open-door-type city,” Rose says. “It’s easy to make an impact, and not everything has been done here al­ready.” That in­cludes po­ten­tial for new busi­nesses like restau­rants, brew­eries, etc., un­like com­pa­ra­ble towns like Boul­der, Colorado, and Austin, Texas, which are teem­ing with such busi­nesses. And on the climb­ing-po­ten­tial front, the sand­stone seems lim­it­less. For ex­am­ple, the SCC pur­chased Denny Cove, a 685-acre par­cel 30 min­utes north­west of Chat­tanooga, in July 2016. The three-mile clif­fline has about 150 es­tab­lished routes and tons of new-rout­ing po­ten­tial.

“There’s a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing an old boy’s club [in the South],” Poppel adds, “but you can cold email heads of gi­ant foun­da­tions here, and they will re­ply to you, and then sit and lis­ten. If you have an idea, there are peo­ple who will get be­hind you.”

That’s the story with High Point Climb­ing and Fit­ness, Chat­tanooga’s new­est gym. Gym own­ers John Wiygul and Johnny O’Brien met at a triathlon in 2005 and be­gan train­ing to­gether. As a life­long climber, Wiygul took O’Brien to a climb­ing gym for strength train­ing, and O’Brien loved it. With 35 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the health­care in­dus­try, in­clud­ing run­ning a $1 bil­lion com­pany, O’Brien saw a huge op­por­tu­nity af­ter dis­cussing a new gym with Wiygul. O’Brien in­vested $4 mil­lion of his own cash and used his per­sonal bank­ing re­la­tion­ships to get another $2.5 mil­lion for High Point. Since then,

High Point has opened a sec­ond fa­cil­ity in Chat­tanooga, and one in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, and has an­nounced plans for two more lo­ca­tions, one in Alabama and one in Ten­nessee.

The first High Point (down­town) was part of a rede­vel­op­ment project called “The Block,” which in­cludes a cof­fee shop and the out­door re­tailer Rock/Creek. Rose and Poppel also ex­pe­ri­enced this snow­ball ef­fect, where new busi­ness begets new busi­ness, when they opened The Fly­ing Squir­rel next to their hos­tel in 2013. As a late-night bar that serves food, it was the only place of its kind in the neigh­bor­hood. A year later, Clyde’s, a bar that ap­peals to the col­lege crowd, opened down the street, which in­stantly cre­ated foot traf­fic be­tween the two. Sud­denly, the zone had be­come a bur­geon­ing restau­rant-bar dis­trict. Now there are more than a dozen hot spots within a few blocks.

WITH THE IN­FLUX of climbers and other tourists comes a unique set of draw­backs. There’s a ma­jor health dis­par­ity be­tween long­time lo­cals and the ac­tive out­door res­i­dents that Bai­ley would like to see re­solved. Many long­time res­i­dents don’t climb or recre­ate. Lack of nutri­tion education com­bined with in­ac­tiv­ity means obe­sity is an is­sue. “It’s a crazy con­trast where you have this amaz­ing out­door town, but no­body is ac­tive,” he says. “Hope­fully we can con­nect long­time res­i­dents to the land they’ve been on for years.” While there are no spe­cific ini­tia­tives to do this, get­ting more peo­ple uti­liz­ing the sur­round­ing out­door play­grounds would help in con­ser­va­tion ef­forts and make the com­mu­nity health­ier over­all.

More climber traf­fic means more impact and ac­cess is­sues, and with some of the climb­ing near Chat­tanooga be­ing pri­vately owned, such as at pop­u­lar places like Lit­tle Rock City and Castle Rock, it can cre­ate ten­sion with landown­ers. Climb­ing land man­age­ment on a large scale is rel­a­tively new in the South, and lo­cal climb­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions are only loosely con­nected to each other and the gov­ern­ment. An in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic cul­ture in the South also makes it dif­fi­cult to get things done. Peo­ple don’t want gov­ern­ment and other or­ga­ni­za­tions telling them what to do, and or­ga­niz­ing around a big­ger cause is a chal­lenge on both sides. Each landowner has spe­cific re­quests for climb­ing man­age­ment, and the climbers them­selves ad­here to their own rules, mean­ing they some­times climb on pri­vate land that’s not tech­ni­cally open.

“Many peo­ple mov­ing here don’t un­der­stand how it works in the South,” Cody Roney, of the SCC, ex­plains about climbers shar­ing pho­tos of closed ar­eas on so­cial me­dia and of­fer­ing beta to friends. “They think, ‘ My buddy goes there, so why can’t I?’ We haven’t lost any ac­cess po­ten­tial yet, but landown­ers are tak­ing no­tice.”

Then there’s the fact that the mil­lions of dol­lars climbers spend each year don’t go

di­rectly back into climb­ing to help mit­i­gate the impact as­so­ci­ated with growth, like trail im­prove­ment, park­ing-lot main­te­nance, bolt up­grades, sig­nage, and education. “It’s $10 per day to climb at Lit­tle Rock City, and you’ve got 12,000 peo­ple climb­ing there in a year,” Bai­ley says, speak­ing of the world-fa­mous boul­der­ing area on a golf course near town, “and none of that money goes back to climb­ing.”

Most of the climber dol­lars are spent at restau­rants and shops. “Re­turn on in­vest­ment is ex­tremely ro­bust given the lack of hu­man re­sources and site in­fra­struc­ture al­lo­cated to the gen­er­a­tion of climb­ing-re­lated tourism,” reads the Chat­tanooga study. “In­vest­ment in climb­ing man­age­ment, mar­ket­ing, and in­fra­struc­ture would greatly en­hance tourism at­trac­tion.” Fur­ther, it sug­gests cre­ative rev­enue sources for sus­tain­able climb­ing in­fra­struc­ture and cross-mar­ket­ing part­ner­ships with shops and restau­rants.

And yet, the eco­nomic power of climbers has trans­lated in other ways. In 2017, Roney hired a part-time stew­ard­ship di­rec­tor for the SCC. When the SCC pur­chased Denny Cove, the state of Ten­nessee was one of the big­gest fun­ders. It was a cir­cum­stance that opened up be­cause climb­ing has evolved into a le­git­imized sport. “They think it’s cool now, and they want climbers [on the land],” Roney says. “So many new part­ner­ship op­por­tu­ni­ties have opened up be­cause they’re re­al­iz­ing the eco­nomic im­pacts of climb­ing.”

Bai­ley and his wife still climb in Chat­tanooga, but their days of noo­dles in the truck are over. The fam­ily of three gets up, makes break­fast, and packs “an un­godly amount of gear and ac­ces­sories, much of which is bought lo­cally,” says Bai­ley. They’ll top off the gas tank ($20) and grab cof­fee and snacks from Whole Foods ($20) be­fore head­ing to the rock, where they meet other climbers with kids. Af­ter climb­ing, they al­most al­ways head to a restau­rant and have din­ner in a group. “$50 is a low stan­dard for us,” Bai­ley says. “Climb­ing is still a cen­tral part of our lives, but our ex­pec­ta­tions are dif­fer­ent. Now my proud­est mo­ments are when my six-year-old girl is driven to send some­thing at her limit—like her first multi-pitch this past sum­mer.”

The au­thor climb­ing on the sleek, mod­ern walls of High Point Climb­ing and Fit­ness in down­town Chat­tanooga. The city now has three rock gyms.

Hun­gry climbers tuck into some post-send “40s and fowl” at Champy’s Chicken.

Dan Rose (left) and Max Poppel (right) in front of The Crash Pad hos­tel, 2017.

Rachel Prater, a climber and Crash Pad em­ployee, warm­ing up at Zahnd.

Drew Bai­ley, for­mer dirtbag turned fam­ily man, at the Stone Fort boul­ders with his daugh­ter, Anya. Julie El­li­son sam­pling the di­vine sand­stone of Ra­zor Worm (5.8+), Ten­nessee Wall.

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