Back in 2010 I ventured outside of the climbing community and into the local community of Lee County, Ky — the heart of the Red River Gorge for rock climbing. I was drawn with curiosity to discovering how I could bring my network and skills and contribute something in a place where I witnessed poverty and a lack of means that I took for granted elsewhere. It started with fitness and nutrition consultations at the local recreational facility that had a stellar fitness and conditioning area, complete with treadmills, weight benches, and cable machines. While exploring that avenue, I ventured out to investigate what computer access was like. Climbing, fitness, nutrition, and computers are my primary skills so it made sense that after making headway with these skills that I would explore how to integrate climbing.
The Red River Gorge has the most amazing, steep sandstone in the world. People from all over the globe travel to climb here, spending months in the region, often rarely going into the neighboring towns for amenities. The reason for this is simple, the town is economically challenged and the offerings for these often urban acclimated visitors isn’t enough. Urban-ites want their Wholefood, organic, all natural, healthy, and gourmet options. It’s that simple. A town that has lost it’s major industries such as coal and tobacco is not one focused on opening new shops or equipping existing markets with specialty options. In recent years, they are bringing in more options for this clientele, but it is slow and marginal. Perhaps, if people stayed or visited the local communities, more offerings would appear.
Last year’s economic impact study showed that climbers supported selective markets that were locally owned, think Miguel’s Pizza and Rockhouse. However, when you look at the numbers closer, you see that climbers who stay for a short period of time tend to spend more money (housing, food, fuel), than climbers who stay for longer. This might seem counter intuitive, but consider that there aren’t many things locally to attract a long term visitor. They tend to want to conserve money and reduce the number of trips into Lexington, Richmond, Winchester, or Stanton to get “real” supplies. This means, despite the number of people visiting the region, money is still leaving the area.
Now that we have a climbing facility built at the primary junction of climbers coming from the 498, heading to Lago Lindas or back to Miguels, they can stop in and get a training session whenever the Rec Center is open. Conveniently, the Rec Center also serves food, and while it’s not Miguel’s pizza, it’s still good pizza. And, they are willing to stock items that climbers are interested in once they know what the uptake looks like.
Now, with the attraction of a climbing facility for those bad weather days, the injured but committed days, the residential variation to training days, or the casual power rebuild day, we can start to serve healthier offerings. And, this isn’t just good for climbers, it’s good for the community.
One of the biggest reasons I wanted this facility was not simply to help attract climbers to stay locally and create more options catered towards climbers but to create healthier options for the locals, simply by proximity. Further, climbing is talked about in the community a lot, yet people are distanced from it. This facility brings climbing to the community and makes it accessible to everyone.
My vision is that over time, we’ll see a cross pollination of climbers and community members where together we will give back to the community through local events. This 90+% white town will have natural access to diverse backgrounds through interaction at the facility with people who travel from all over the world and will come session there. And, it’s not just diversity of race and culture that will be available to them, it will also be careers.
The economic impact study showed that climbers tend to be highly educated with most of them having college degrees (or working on one). This means, that kids will be exposed to different disciplines they might not otherwise be exposed to within their community. NPR did a study that showed why kids choose physics when others don’t (boys and girls). It comes down to role models. Is there someone in physics in their community? Transitively, if a kid can see someone doing something and it sparks an interest in them, it’s a win! A town in an economic depression is losing opportunities for their kids as more and more people leave the community, and yet, this is one place where they can regain some of that loss.
Similarly, while the community will benefit by climbers interacting more, climbers will also reap benefits. First, the stereotypes of what it’s like to be a kid or local in the community will be broken. It’s hard to hold onto stereotypes when you get to know someone. Climbers are genuinely good people (for the most part) and many of them have big hearts and want to help. Building a better rapport will help encourage them to participate in the community, which can help strengthen the community and forge better relations between climbers and locals. Finally, climbers spending money locally will help curb the economic depression the town is facing and over time possibly see new business opportunities appear.
I have high hopes for this establishment, even though its modest in nature. It’s a start and it has a strong backing with solid potential. It was built by the community of climbers, climbing companies, friends, relatives, and Mission members, but it operates out of the hearts of volunteers. This is a non-profit establishment, built for the community. We have seen a strong uptake and are continuing to refine the operation and get the facility operating like fine tuned wheel. Right now, we are limping and looking for corporate sponsors, other fundraising opportunities, and financial support to hire a gym manager that can help us make this what we know it can become.
Finally, this establishment has a spiritual backing. The Rec Center and the Climbing Addition operate under the Kentucky Mountain Mission and we are very fortunate that it does. The Director is a mentor to me and operates with utmost integrity. He lifts people out of poverty by caring for the community and providing them spiritual guidance, recreational options, food and clothing opportunities, and serving as the Chairman of the School Board to help children get the best education they can.
He supported the effort to bring Computer Science as a curriculum to his school and now the entire education system throughout Kentucky State wants the same thing. Kids that graduated out of the pilot program are now working as Computer Scientists in prestigious companies. Working with this man for the last 6 almost 7 years and all that we have accomplished and done for the community has built a significant trust between us. It is for this reason, I am honored to have worked with him to bring climbing into his facility.
I’m overwhelmed at the support we have received to make this happen. After the grand opening weekend a few weeks ago, I sat in the room by myself and marveled that we did it. I brought together an amazing team and worked hard to get the funds needed to create a facility I am proud of. My heart is still bursting from the accomplishment.
Today, we are seeing a steady stream of people and more importantly, community nights are a hit, especially with the girls. Have a look at this short video and enjoy the journey. We still need money for operations so if this inspired you, please take a minute to make a donation.