Written by Toni Sherwood | Photos by Anthony Harden
In opening his second climbing gym, Stuart Cowles fulfilled a longtime dream.
“Being an entrepreneur is a lot like rock climbing,” Stuart Cowles says. “When you’re climbing a rock face on lead, you leave your protection below to travel higher, so you’re climbing in a risky situation. It’s scary. There’s some protection, but it’s calculated. And there are consequences.” Cowles is a nationally certified climbing instructor who has been active in the sport for almost 30 years. His downtown Asheville business, Climbmax, was among the very first climbing gyms in the United States when it opened 22 years ago.
Cowles is a nationally certified climbing instructor who has been active in the sport for almost 30 years. His downtown Asheville business, Climbmax, was among the very first climbing gyms in the United States when it opened 22 years ago. And then in January he launched his newest business, the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center (SMAC), located on Amboy Road across from Carrier Park in Asheville’s burgeoning River Arts District. As is so often the case, the venture has its roots in previously forged personal relationships.
Location, location, location
Daniel Nash is an investor who makes his home in both Asheville and Los Angeles. He met Cowles when he enrolled his daughter at Climbmax in 2009 for climbing instruction. “Stuart works really hard,” Nash says, “I have a lot of respect for him.” As Nash watched his daughter excel at the sport under Cowles’ guidance, the two men became friends.
By then, Climbmax was a thriving business, but Cowles had already begun looking towards the future. “At 50, I’m looking for something more than the equity in my home,” he says. “Climbmax rents space from the City of Asheville, so I have no equity in the property.”
Cowles began searching for the perfect spot to build his dream business: a sports activity center in Asheville. At that time the River Arts District (RAD) was still a murky proposition. With graffiti-tagged buildings, little foot traffic, and few businesses, creative vision was required.
“When Stuart first started looking at the River Arts District, the appeal was not apparent,” Stephanie Brown, Executive Director of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, says. “That was before the city had allotted funding to do the greenway. Before Harry Pilos came along.”
Brown is referring to the RAD Loft project currently being developed by Harry Pilos’ company, Delphi Development, LLC. The RAD Lofts are a high-density, urban mixed-use development, which will be located at the intersection of Roberts Street, Depot Street, and Clingman Extension. The project will bring more restaurants, retail, and housing to the River Arts District, as well as more tourists.
“Stuart had the foresight and the great timing to invest in the River Arts District,” Brown says. “He was part of the catalyst to get the ball rolling. Now it’s a no-brainer.”
Cowles eventually pitched his proposal to Nash: to form a partnership and purchase the land upon which he would build his new business venture. Nash wanted to be more involved in the Asheville community and saw this as an opportunity. They formed the Asheville River Development, LLC, a 50/50 partnership.
Nash admits he deferred to Cowles when deciding on which plot to purchase. “Stuart said, ‘I like this one best’, so I said, ‘Okay,’” Nash recalls. “He thought the area would continue to grow. This was before the [New Belgium] brewery came, so Stuart was right.”
Cowles felt strongly that the .96-acre parcel across from Carrier Park was the right piece of land, although it had its issues. “It was not an easy decision,” Cowles admits. ”It was going to be problematic to build on.”
173 Amboy Rd, Asheville, North Carolina 28806 43 Wall Street, Asheville, North Carolina 28801
828-505-4446 | www.SMACasheville.com
828-252-9996 | www.climbmaxnc.com
173 Amboy Rd, Asheville, North Carolina 28806
43 Wall Street, Asheville, North Carolina 28801
Although the project finally broke ground in February of 2014, it was a long hard road to completion.
“Part of the delay was applying for a loan in one of the most difficult times to get a loan,” Cowles says.
With conservative lenders shying away from risk, convincing banks to lend to a small start-up business was challenging. He and Nash owned the land outright, and they used this as collateral, as well as Cowles’ residence, to secure the loan. Cowles then sold off his stock portfolio in order to have cash available to offset construction. “The ironic benefit, in hindsight, is that I got an amazing mortgage rate,” Cowles says.
Because SMAC would be new construction, it would have to be flood proof at two feet above the 100-year flood plain (meaning 11’ 3”) to meet city building codes. They had a few choices on how that would be achieved: build a flow through building elevated on piers (which could not be heated); build an elevated structure with parking beneath; or somehow make the building flood proof. Each choice had pros and cons, but they were all expensive. Cowles estimates 40 percent of the construction costs went into flood proofing, driving total costs up far more than he had projected. But his passion and belief in the project kept him moving forward.
“I’m climbing up on lead and way above my last piece of gear,” Cowles says. “If I’m wrong, I’ve had a very expensive gamble.”
Cowles had to petition for variances, which would allow him to build within the setbacks, and he made it his mission to save three areas with large trees, all of which he was granted. But it’s evident from speaking with Cowles about the process that, although he is a master at keeping his cool and rolling with the punches, the effort was exhausting.
And there’s only one solution to that.
On The Edge
Historically, the climbing gym began as a place to get in shape and hone skills in preparation for climbing actual rock faces. No matter how much fun the gym can offer, there’s no manmade replacement that compares with the incredible vistas and mountainsides we have here in Western North Carolina.
There are many forms of rock climbing; among the more popular are traditional climbing, bouldering, top roping, and lead roping.
Traditional climbing, or ‘trad,’ involves the climber placing protection as he ascends. So although the gear protects against falls, it doesn’t aid the ascent.
Bouldering involves climbing shorter, lower routes, typically without the use of safety ropes. Sometimes a bouldering pad is placed for climbers to drop on, and a spotter may stay below to move the pad into the best position.
Top roping utilizes a system of pulleys and ropes to belay a climber from the ground below. An anchor is set at the top of the climb. Both the person working the belay and the climber start on the ground, then as the climber gains altitude, the belayer takes up slack. In the event of a fall, the secured rope protects the climber. Some factors that influence how far a climber may drop are the stretch of the rope, the weight imbalance between the climber and the belayer, and the length of the climbing route.
Unlike top roping, lead roping involves anchors set below the climbers. As the lead climber ascends, the partner below feeds rope carefully to prevent too much slack. Once the climber above reaches an intermediate point, they may clip into preset bolts or use active cams (spring loaded mountaineering protection equipment that can be inserted into a crack of rock and expanded, providing a secure anchor). Because a climber travels above their secure anchor, lead climbing involves far more risks and requires more training.
Ice climbing is a specialized form that can only occur when conditions allow for a hard freeze. In Western North Carolina most ice climbing is done on frozen waterfalls or water runoffs. Besides perfect weather conditions, ice climbing requires specialized equipment such as ice axes and crampons, which are worn over footwear to provide traction.
Midweek, Cowles manages to sneak out around noon to go ice climbing. Regardless of the physical exertion, he returns refreshed with a renewed perspective on why he works so hard.
“Yes, running these businesses is taxing, frustrating, and anxiety-provoking,” he admits, “but play has been a driving force in my 25-year tenure at doing this.”
He is, in fact, already looking forward to his next big adventure, which is certain to be a climbing trip. But Cowles is not one of those CEOs who have special rules for themselves; he encourages his employees to travel and take personal time, too. The only caveat is that they return well rested and ready to work. With SMAC now officially opened, perhaps Cowles will finally have a chance to get away.
Partnerships have been the building blocks upon which Cowles’ business model thrives. He has contracted with several different partners to rent space at SMAC. Among these are private teachers holding classes, small businesses such as Kolo Bikes and Asheville Adventure Rentals (who will be renting outdoor space), and businesses in which Cowles is also a partner in, such as the Asheville Hang Out (which, incidentally, will serve locally crafted beer).
One of the partnerships crucial to SMAC getting off the ground was the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority (BCTDA), which administers and oversees the Tourism Product Development Fund (TPDF). (Funded via a percentage of the Buncombe County occupancy tax, the TPDF has awarded, to date, $23 million in grants to 27 community projects; for more information about the TPDF, go to www.ashevillecvb.com/about-the-tpdf/.) The goal of the BCTDA is to increase overnight stays in Buncombe County, so they are looking for projects that demonstrate the ability to generate new and incremental room nights in the area. Cowles’ challenge was to demonstrate how an outdoor activity center could encourage tourists to stay overnight in Asheville.
“One of the past recipients of the grant was the U.S. Cellular Center,” Cowles says. “Their reasoning was that people come to see concerts and stay overnight.”
Cowles admits he worked hard on the grant application to get the wording right and the bases covered. Regardless, the first time he applied he was turned down.
“It is not uncommon for people to apply multiple times for feedback,” says Brown, of the Convention & Visitors Bureau. But, she notes, there was something that distinguished Cowles from the pack. “Stuart demonstrated leadership in his respect for the systems we must work within. The process of discovery led to more expenses for him, but he always remained respectful.”
Cowles’ second attempt at the TPDF grant was successful, and he received $100,000 in funding to help build the brick and mortar business.
A Flood of Expenses
Cowles had chosen to meet the flood code by waterproofing the building above the 100-year flood plain, but exactly how to do it proved challenging. “We had to get the director of the building department to come down and take a look to figure out how to waterproof it,” Cowles recalls. In the end, a massive 700-pound door was created. In the event of a flood, it can be rolled out and fitted tightly over the single ground floor entrance.
As the process dragged on, Cowles was forced to return to the BCTDA to request an extension, and at that time he also asked for an increase in funding. He was granted the time extension, but not the monetary increase. Still, the city agreed to a crosswalk with a flashing light for pedestrians to cross Amboy Road between SMAC and Carrier Park.
“The TPDF liked the central location for all of these activities,” Cowles says. “With the activity center, the whole family can come and spend the day.”
“We want to increase overnight visitation to Buncombe County in a natural, authentic, and vibrant way,” Brown says. “Smoky Mountain Activity Center fit in with that vision.”
Additionally, the city has plans to add two river access points, one across the park from SMAC.
Reaching the Pinnacle
SMAC will have stand up paddle boards, river tubes, and bicycles for rent outside. There is an outdoor climbing wall visible from the street and 23 parking spots in the gravel lot.
As you step inside the bright and spacious building, there’s a coffee and smoothie bar. This connects to an expansive climbing and bouldering area that spans the height of the building. Upstairs is a separate room for yoga, Pilates, and cross-fit classes, as well as events, a weight lifting area, and the Asheville Hang Out. The bar and railings are all made from reclaimed wood cleared from the property.
A side room at SMAC will house another one of Cowles’ retail businesses, Earth Sports Design. Since 1991 they have been producing backpacks and wilderness first-aid kits, which they sell to groups like Outward Bound and fire departments.
Tables and chairs are set up on the outside deck overlooking Carrier Park. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun; the kind of place where you can work up a sweat and cool off afterwards.
Finally, Cowles’ longtime dream has become a reality—and none too soon. As Brown explains, “Things have changed since Stuart applied. The TPDF no longer funds ‘for profit’ businesses. We are now focused on funding truly significant municipal and nonprofit projects.”
Cowles, incidentally, plans to keep his downtown business. The two locations appeal to different clientele, and whereas SMAC has more top ropes and lead roping, Climbmax offers a wider diversity of bouldering. Memberships are available that allow access to both facilities.
“Stuart started here and built on his success,” Brown says. “It couldn’t be more ideal.”
Cowles agrees, saying, “In ten years I’d love to see SMAC operating successfully. At that point I can begin to move toward more income through rentals.”
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