Feature Article - March 2002
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Boulder Dash

Climbing Wall facilities race for the next level

By Stacy St. Clair

Sport or religion?
Once the Deutsche Evangelical Reform Church,
Urban Krag gym is now a sanctuary for climbers
in Dayton, Ohio.

Opening a climbing gym of the 21st century, however, is no easy task. It requires a lot of money and even more creativity.

When Karl Williamson started scouting locations for his climbing gym in Dayton, Ohio, five years ago, the pickings appeared slim. Conventional wisdom suggested he look at warehouse space in unattractive areas of town. The thought made him shutter.

"I couldn't see myself putting up one in an industrial park," he says. "I thought it was too blah."

Then Williamson saw the 140-year-old Deutsche Evangelical Reform Church while taking a walk in Dayton's Oregon District, a historical neighborhood known for its trendy stores, restaurants and homes. Most of the abandoned churches in the neighborhood had been converted into condominiums, but potential developers believed the Deutsche Evangelical to be beyond salvation.

The building, which had been vacant for 20 years, had no utilities and was a month away from the wrecking ball. But where others saw decay, Williamson spotted potential. When naysayers cringed at the huge holes in the floors and ceiling, Williamson envisioned an 8,000-square-foot wall of textured and sculpted vertical terrain.

With the proper renovation, he believed it could become a climbers' sanctuary. It would be a placed that not only stimulated climbers physically, but aesthetically and, perhaps, spiritually too.

Urban Krag gym in Dayton, Ohio.

Such crusades, however, come at a steep price. The building's resurrection required a few years, three architects, two engineers and a pair of contractors.

"It was pretty much just a giant check," Williamson says. "It was expensive to save a building."

The result is a magnificent facility that pays homage to its religious roots with wooden arches and restored stained glass windows. Of course, superficial looks alone cannot keep a gym's budget in the black. Williams also sunk money into a superior climbing wall that could meet even the most experienced climber's expectations. The wall, which shoots 56 feet into the facility's vaulted ceiling, has 60 routes ranging from grade 5.4 to an exceedingly difficult 13.

The creativity and money netted the desired results: climbers' awe and repeat business. The facility is so popular that Williamson has plans to build an observation area so people can watch the entire spectacle of climbing at Urban Krag.

"People are pretty amazed when they come inside," Williamson says. "We're not rolling in money. But we're doing OK."