Friday, August 14, 2009

The making of a gym... True North; Toronto

Sometimes people comment on our page and give us feedback on how to make the page better for the readers; the following article is from one such reader John Gross. He's opening a new gym in the Toronto area, we figured it'd be an idea to ask him about the process of opening a gym to see what kind of headaches it has in store for anyone thinking about such a project.

If you have any questions you'd like to ask, mail me and I'll get them answered and will post the replies as they come :)

So here we go....

Q1) So introduce yourself, how many years have you been climbing... what experience do you have?

A1) I’ve been climbing about 5 ½ years. I’m a recreational climber, mainly indoors, and I’m not especially good! I work hard on 5.10s, and boulder at the low end of the scale (V0 to maybe V2 on a good day). But given that I started at age 45, and was not in great shape, I’m happy. I’ve mostly climbed indoors, as a member at Toronto Climbing Academy for the past 5 years. I recently learned to lead climb. I’ve also done some outdoor bouldering (Niagara Glen, Red Rocks) and I love it. I’m sure some will be horrified to know that I’ve only been outdoor roped climbing once. But that means I’m much like my target market; the vast majority of people who climb indoors never go outdoor climbing!

Q2) So you’ve not been climbing for a while obviously love and now you’ve decided to open a gym? That seems like a risky proposition. I’m guessing you have a bunch of experience in managing a business like this, or are you winging it :P

A2) Fair question. No, I’m not an advanced or hard-core climber. I love it, and it has led me here, but really this gym is a business proposition, not a crazy pursuit of my passion. I’m doing this because I think it’s a very good business opportunity, and I needed a change. The fact that running a climbing gym will be cool as hell is entirely incidental! And, no, I have no experience running my own business. I do have 25 years of work experience, which has taught me many of the things I need to know to do this, but at the same time a lot of the appeal comes from having to learn a lot of new things. I’ve surrounded myself with people who know more than I do, and while learning fast I am also getting help from them along the way.

Q3) We hear you've just signed the lease on a building to build a new wall! How big is the building and where is it situated?

A4) I’ve got about 12,000 square feet of space in the old airplane hangar at Downsview Park, an urban national park near Highway 401 and Allen Rd. I’m joining the Downsview Park Sports Centre which is a collection of several pretty cool sports businesses in the building. The space has a lot of character, with high clerestory windows bringing in nice natural light. The ceilings are a mix of 26’ and 36’ high.
Here's the exterior (above)And the interior from one of the corners (above)

Q5) What's the gym going to be called? Why that particular name?

A5) After some brainstorming with friends I chose True North Climbing as the gym name. It fits with the gym being in the north end of the city, and I think it conveys a nice sense of Canadian integrity. I ran an online contest at to get the logo, which is intended to show that the gym is a fun place for anyone to climb.

Q6) How long was the process and what kind of hurdles did you encounter in just getting to this point?

A6) I’ve been thinking about doing this for a few years, but got serious when I was « liberated » from my previous job in January. I spent about 3 months networking and researching, doing my homework to figure out what it would take to do this. I attended the Climbing Wall Association’s annual Summit conference in Boulder at the end of April, learned a ton, and at that point decided I would go for it. I had the location in mind, and fortunately there was suitable space for lease in the hangar building. It took me 4 months from there to negotiate the lease and secure the funding. I’ve heard that most gym owners take a long time to find the right building, and one ironic obstacle for me was that I found mine « too quickly », and had to push hard to get my business plan together quickly in order to get the bank loans approved before someone else grabbed the space.
Q7) Ah liberated, what was it you did before you decided to open a climbing gym?

A7) I was a computer geek. I have a Bachelors degree (from Waterloo) and a Masters (from Berkeley) in Computer Science, and spent 25 years in software development, specializing in computer graphics and animation. For the last 14 years I worked on Maya, a 3D application used for special effects in films and video games. The company I worked for (known at the time as Alias | Wavefront) was awarded an Oscar statuette for the software’s contribution to the film industry.

Q8) How hard was it to get funding from a bank with the economy being so poor right now?

A8) Actually that wasn’t difficult at all. I went in with a clear business plan, backed up by some demographic research showing why I think there’s plenty of room for another gym in Toronto. I had a good credit rating, enough money of my own saved up to invest substantially in the project myself, and one of the loans is secured by my house. I had a great 2-hour discussion with my banker and at the end he said « I think we can do this ». It took a while from there to jump through all the hoops, but getting the funding really wasn’t so hard, given the business plan and my willingness and ability to bet on the project myself.

Q9) So the wall's being designed right now? Who's doing the designing?

A9) Eldorado Climbing Walls of Boulder, Colorado.

Q10) What made you pick that particular wall maker?

A10) I got bids from 4 wall building companies, based on estimated square footages of each kind of wall construction I have in mind (realistic rock, freestanding boulder(s), cement texture on plywood). I had a very tough decision between Eldorado and Rockwerx. Either would have been an excellent choice. In fact I had bought the Rockwerx initial consulting package, and found it a great help in preparing my business plan quickly and obtaining my funding. In the end I chose Eldorado based on the thoroughness and professionalism of their bid, the very strong references I got from a few of the gyms they have built, and my feeling of confidence in John McGowan and Steve Holmes, whom I met with when I was in Boulder at the CWA Summit. So far they and their team have been great to work with.

Q11) How much research has gone into the climbing area? Did you go and visit other gyms to see what they had before you started the design process?

A11) I’ve climbed at several gyms in Canada and the US, and once at EICA in Scotland, so I’ve seen a good variety of stuff. I learned a lot from some of the sessions at the CWA Summit conference. In June I took a reconnaissance trip to the San Francisco Bay area, and visited 8 gyms in 6 days. I’ve got a lot of input from my climbing friends and other gym owners, and am collecting more on the forums on my web site ( And I’ve retained Chris Danielson as a consultant to review the design and give me his input as well.

Q12) How much climbing surface do you expect to have?

A12) Approximately 13,000 square feet in total.

Q13) Are you going to have separate bouldering / top rope / lead walls?

A13) Most of the bouldering will be dedicated walls & free-standing boulders (almost all top-out, I expect), though we may choose to also put up some traverse routes on the roped walls. There will be dedicated lead routes, as well as lead climbing on many of the top-rope routes.

Q14) I know it's early, but padding is a huge issue with bouldering walls these days, some is too firm some too soft! What /who are you looking at to supply the pads?

A14) This is a huge concern of mine. I believe that the loose drag pads can contribute to injuries (rolled ankles from landing on edges, and arm injuries resulting from landing with one foot on a pad and one foot off). I’m looking into seamless padding for the bouldering area, probably 12 or 14 inches thick. Asana seems to have some excellent stuff, and there are other options I’m exploring as well. The roped areas will have the usual carpet on foam system, and we’ll figure out a clean way to transition between the two depths of padding.
Q15) Right let’s talk about holds! As you're getting a wall designed and built by the Eldorado Climbing Wall Company, we know that they own Franklin Handholds; does this mean you're going to have a lot of Franklin stuff on the wall?

A15) I thought you would never ask about holds! I’ll probably get some holds from Eldorado/Franklin, but I think it makes sense to have a wide variety of holds from several companies.

Q16) What other hold company's are you going to be looking at? I know you read our site so there must be a bunch of stuff you've been looking at and looking at your budget rubbing your hands. What hold company's stand out in your mind as holds that are a must have for any commercial climbing gym? I know that you've stated that you like the Canadian holds companys more because of shipping; I'm guessing you're going to have a lot of Teknik / Sequence and Friction holds kicking about :)

A16) I’ve got a little bouldering cave in my basement, and I have over 300 holds from lots of companies there. I will indeed show a preference to the Canadian companies, because I want to support the local talent, because they do great stuff, and because I care about minimizing shipping where possible (for both budgetary and environmental reasons). I love the stuff from both Friction and Teknik, and Sequence and Delire also have some cool holds. I’m less familiar with Globe, but will look at theirs as well.
Beyond the « True North » companies, I like a lot of the stuff from Metolius, Nicros, and of course the crazy shit that So Ill makes. And I have seen some very nice holds from other companies on your site that I haven’t had a chance to get my hands on.The variety is very important. And I’ll want to have some big features/volumes to help vary the terrain a bit, and add some visual appeal.

Q17) If you’re going to be looking for large volumes do you have anyone in particular that you’d look at? There’s some good stuff on the market and the Canadian market isn’t really geared towards large shapes.

A17) I haven’t figured this part out yet; still researching! When will you be reviewing volumes? 
CHR: We’re working on this little by little; it’s expensive to get volumes to review. We’re also getting a lot of European companies in fairly soon, that should be some interesting reading. This brings me to my next question:
Q18) Europe has some good volumes and superb hold company’s out there. Did you look at these company's or did you just skip on this option because of exchange rates and shipping?

A18) I’m not very familiar with the European companies (though I do recall seeing some good volumes from there), and didn’t consider buying from them for my little home cave. I’m open to anything, and for the gym it may make sense to look at them. And of course, while I’ll be buying a lot of holds up front to set up the gym, it’s not a one-shot thing. We’ll keep buying holds on a continuing basis as well, and volumes in particular are a nice way to spice up the terrain after folks have gotten familiar with it.

Q19) Are you going to look at purely urethane holds or aren’t you worried about having a mix of resin & urethane? Wear and tear on holds is a big issue when it comes to gyms.

A19) My understanding is that all the hold manufacturers are moving to urethane (despite it being more expensive), as the resin holds are too breakable. So I’m probably looking at all urethane, but that’s not completely nailed down.

CHR: This is and isn’t true! Some companys have made the switch, others that might but some people like Nicros who have a resin mix that uses corn/soy based resin you’re not likely to see them move to urethane as they feel its strong and good for the environment at the same time.
JOHN: Ah, that’s right; I remember seeing that at the CWA Summit.

Q20) If you’re worried about the environment do you think that what products that go into a hold and what waste is generated from the process is important? Some companys holds last longer but they use urethane with some nasty stuff in it, would information of what type of urethane the holds are made from sway your hold purchases?

A20) Yes it’s important. I don’t know enough yet about which holds are better environmentally than others. I’m intrigued by your post about Element Climbing’s offering of recycled holds. I’d love it if you guys would gather more information about the environmental impact of how holds are made. This stuff is important to me, and will be a factor in my choices, but I’m not so fanatical about it that I will seriously compromise the routes just to feel good.
Again something we’re working in.

Q21) So when should we expect to see the gym taking shape?

A21) I’ll be updating the progress on the gym blog at The old building has great character, but it will take a lot of work to get it in shape. The landlord will be replacing all of the high clerestory windows with new energy-efficient ones, and I expect we’ll be doing some structural work to remove a few girders and open up the high ceiling space a little more. I expect to have a construction schedule in place in early September, and am hoping to have the Eldorado crew on site by November.

Q22) Whats the rough schedule like for an opening date?

A22) I’m aiming for early March, if all goes well.


Ryan said...

I think it would be nice if you could still the keep the pics in the first few posts showing. I used to always scroll through the pics on the main page and then read if I saw something interesting or new. Definitely appreciate all the reviews especially the hold of the month lists.

ntmb said...

I was working on that last night, but I ran out of energy, I'll try to sort this out in the next few days