$2M Salt Lake loan put on 'pause'; USA Climbing gym on hold amid growing 'drama'

A sign on the exterior of the The Front Climbing Club Dec. 15, 2023. Salt Lake City's redevelopment agency paused a $2 million loan to the gym on Thursday, accusing its owner is trying to "quash" a major USA Climbing project.

A sign on the exterior of the The Front Climbing Club Dec. 15, 2023. Salt Lake City's redevelopment agency paused a $2 million loan to the gym on Thursday, accusing its owner is trying to "quash" a major USA Climbing project. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)


Save Story
Leer en español

Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The owner of a popular climbing gym in Salt Lake City says he's stunned the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City has paused a major loan — which it had approved last month to help him expand his business — over his opposition to USA Climbing's desire to build another commercial gym as part of a new training center in the city.

USA Climbing's plan is also on hold as a reported feud between the governing body and U.S. climbing gym owners is settled.

The Redevelopment Agency approved a $2 million loan on Dec. 12 to help Rocky Ventures, the owner of The Front Climbing Club in the city's Ballpark neighborhood, complete the first three phases of an ambitious four-part plan to expand its facility.

However, Dustin Buckthal, CEO of Rocky Ventures, said he was informed via a letter Thursday his loan is now on "pause" following a letter he sent to USA Climbing, the national governing body of the sport, opposing its plan to build a new permanent headquarters and national training facility less than 10 blocks northwest of his business.

The city letter, which KSL.com obtained, states Buckthal's actions are "incompatible with the public benefits and community-building we aim to support," which is why the city is "pausing progress on your loan at this time."

Amanda Greenland, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the city decided to pause the loan so its leaders could review some information within The Front's application. She said some comments Buckthal made to USA Climbing may have contradicted what he told the city, which is what initiated the review.

It's unclear how long the review will take or if the city may rescind the loan, but Buckthal said the delay immediately puts his project in jeopardy. The project was on pace to be completed later this year.

"We're (expletive). Like, I'm going to have to fire (people) — we're done," he said. "This is a real big problem."

A brewing 'drama'

Buckthal applied for a city loan last year after banks were unwilling to approve the money, Redevelopment Agency employees explained in the Dec. 12 meeting. There wasn't any debate over the issue and its board approved the request unanimously.

A map of the three buildings that Rocky Ventures, Inc. owns in Salt Lake City. The furthest right building is an abandoned warehouse that the company recently acquired. It and the middle building are highlighted because they are undergoing the largest renovations right now.
A map of the three buildings that Rocky Ventures, Inc. owns in Salt Lake City. The furthest right building is an abandoned warehouse that the company recently acquired. It and the middle building are highlighted because they are undergoing the largest renovations right now. (Photo: Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City)

What Buckthal says he didn't know when he applied for or received the loan is that Salt Lake City had been engaging in land leasing talks with Climbing USA over a new headquarters in the city.

The governing body, which moved from Colorado to Salt Lake City in 2018, already received $15 million from the state and may receive even more from the city to build the facility, according to a memo posted to the city's website ahead of a Jan. 9 meeting. It states the Redevelopment Agency is proposing "a 99-year ground lease agreement with USA Climbing" in the area of 310 S. 500 West.

A rendering of a new USA Climbing training center that would be located in the area of 310 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City.
A rendering of a new USA Climbing training center that would be located in the area of 310 S. 500 West in Salt Lake City. (Photo: USA Climbing via Salt Lake City)

He was aware of the project because of meetings with the Utah Legislature. On Dec. 10, he and other executives of The Front penned a letter to the governing body voicing his concerns about including a large commercial gym — 45,000-65,000 square feet — within the project.

"The Front has been a strong supporter of (USA Climbing) events, staff and athletes for many years, but we have consistently communicated our opposition to USAC opening a commercial climbing gym in Salt Lake," the letter states, in part. "(The) proposed commercial gym is a direct threat to the local businesses that have long supported USAC and the local Utah communities."

USA Climbing did not immediately respond to KSL.com's request for comment on this story, but USA Climbing President Marc Norman mentioned the project in a public letter on Dec. 21, saying the gym will be used to host "major" national and international events with the capacity to hold more than 1,000 indoor and 3,500 outdoor spectators.

"It will be an inspiring venue where youth athletes will aspire to call their home and for competition," Norman added. "As a community asset, we envision memberships, day passes and a beginner mezzanine to facilitate youth school programs."

Other U.S. climbing gyms voiced their concerns afterward, even threatening to boycott future USA Climbing events. Climbing Business Journal reported 13 other U.S. gym owners and operators, representing 75 gym locations, joined Buckthal and wrote another letter on Dec. 28 warning the plan could also "potentially monopolize the hosting of large-scale American climbing competitions."

The outlet then reported on Jan. 9 that USA Climbing put the project on hold for at least 45 days, while it sorts out all of the concerns. Buckthal said there have been "tons of meetings" between the two sides in recent weeks over the complaints.

USA Climbing was also scheduled to present its plan to members of the Redevelopment Agency's board during a public meeting on Jan. 9. Instead, that portion of the meeting was moved to a closed session. The board and City Council can do this when discussing topics that involve a few sensitive issues, including discussions over "the purchase, exchange or lease of real property" or the value of a property under consideration.

In a now-deleted livestream posted to the city's Facebook and YouTube accounts that day, members of the board can be heard discussing the logistics of the plan with a project representative.

The stream starts somewhere in the middle of the conversation and only lasts about five minutes before the feed is cut, but Salt Lake City Councilman Alejandro Puy, also the board's chairman, acknowledged the "drama" tied to the plan. He added he believes the plan would be huge for the city and is "bigger than just running a gym."

"I'm still supportive of the project, you still have my support on this and I want you to keep on pushing it," Puy told the representative. "I understand how complex this is getting, but — I'm going to throw this out here because it's a closed meeting — it frustrates me a great deal that some people feel like they can get resources from this government, but not other entities. ... It makes me want to pull some of those resources that were allocated."

While neither Buckthal nor The Front are mentioned by name, Puy later references "recent loans" as he continues. Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton then asks what can happen if "that loan" was already approved, adding that he doesn't want to be "retaliatory" before the feed cuts out.

A sudden loan reversal

Buckthal said he was reassured by at least one member of the board that his opposition wouldn't make a difference. The tone suddenly changed in recent weeks, starting with a phone call he said he had with RDA director Danny Walz where he was asked about the USA Climbing project.

Then, Thursday morning, the Redevelopment Agency informed him of a "pause" to the loan via a letter Walz signed. Walz wrote Buckthal has "taken steps to quash the expansion of USA Climbing" since receiving his loan, adding that the agency had "no qualms about providing public support to both projects" until recently.

"We do not believe the two projects are in opposition, but your actions to advance this alternate narrative require us to investigate our concerns and press pause on your loan," Walz wrote. "We support both developments as part of our support for the overall climbing community."

Buckthal reiterated Thursday that he supports the new headquarters in the location, just not a potentially large commercial gym with it. He asserts it could "ruin" his business which has been near 1500 South and 400 West since 1998. Overall, he hopes the Redevelopment Agency will follow through on his loan so he can finish his gym's expansion project.

"It's like they're withdrawing it just out of spite because I'm opposed to a project they're interested in," he said. "But it's one I think they're going to get a bad return on."

In an email to KSL.com, Greenland explained the review will focus on information in The Front's application that "cited strong growth potential in the local climbing market" and how "actions and the narrative advanced by The Front's owner since that loan was approved in December contradict that information."

She adds the Redevelopment Agency will continue to be "actively engaged with the situation" between the two sides, from a "unique standpoint" of trying to support both sides as the review continues.

"We commend and support USA Climbing for trying to work with The Front and the concerned parties to find mutually beneficial solutions, as we still feel strongly that the USA Climbing's national training center and for-profit gyms can coexist in Salt Lake City," she said.

Related stories

Most recent Business stories

Related topics

BusinessOutdoorsUtahSalt Lake CountySports
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

STAY IN THE KNOW

Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the KSL.com Trending 5.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to KSL.com's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast