Climbing has never been a sport that was easy to get into. Before climbing gyms you had to happen on a crusty mentor that would haze you into learning how to tie your knots. With climbing gyms the bar has been lowered somewhat, but for most of the population climbing seems like a crazy extreme sport. At $20 for a day pass, plus rentals, it can also be pricey to try for the first time.
But at Memphis Rox gym, no one is turned away because of an inability to pay. Climbers at this inner-city Memphis, Tennessee gym pay what they can, and anyone who can’t afford to pay has the opportunity to “pay” for their membership via volunteer work with local charities or the gym itself.
Naturally, from a financial standpoint, it was a difficult model to sustain even before the pandemic. Now, amidst the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression and a nationwide health crisis, Memphis Rox is struggling to make ends meet.
I spoke with Director of Operations Jon Hawk last week, who filled me in on the current situation at Memphis Rox and what climbers can do to help. The gym reopened to the public June 15th, and even under the constraints of the coronavirus, they still operate on their same “pay-as-you-can” model.
“Unfortunately, our revenue is down 60%,” Hawk told me, “and member check-ins are down 87%.” With a student membership costing a mere $25/month, a fraction of what most climbing gyms charge, Memphis Rox is already operating with a razor-thin budget, even when folks can afford to pay full-price. Although the gym occasionally receives grants and other lifelines, current prospects are bleak. “We’re running $70,000+ in the red each month,” Hawk admitted grimly.
But Memphis Rox isn’t just trying to survive the pandemic, they’re still giving back in a big way.
Back in the spring, during the first three months that the gym was shut down, Memphis Rox gave out 200-300 bagged lunches every day to members of the local community, and they’re still giving out well over 100 lunches daily, sometimes more.
Memphis Rox also created a mini store adjacent to their gym, providing the local community with toilet paper, cleaning supplies, food, and other essentials, with the entire store operating under a “pay-as-you-can” model. They’ve bottled their own hand sanitizer for the local community, and also are shipping stocks of it out to Native American tribes in need. The gym also is creating a community garden, both to help feed people and teach them how to grow their own food.
They have a free tampon and pad program for women in the community. They set up a polling station for the election and got several hundred people from the neighborhood to come in and vote. The list goes on.
It’s almost like instead of looking at the difficulties their gym is facing and trying to figure out how to stay alive, Memphis Rox has looked at the increased difficulties their community is facing, and have decided to give back even more than before.
When I asked Hawk if he felt their business model could improve in some way to make the gym more sustainable, he chuckled. “It’s totally possible to make it sustainable,” he said, “but our heart’s in service. We want to give back as much as we can.”
To make climbing safer during COVID-19, Memphis Rox has required all climbers to wear masks, lowered their capacity, and stopped renting out chalk or allowing shared loose chalk. They’ve also designated handwashing stations and ramped up cleaning policies.
Still, climbing indoors with a deadly virus on the loose is a scary prospect.
This new hygienic liquid chalk has been proven through independent lab testing to be more effective than traditional hand sanitizer at killing coronavirus, and is a stellar way to get back on the wall safely.
But Memphis Rox still needs your help...
Also, be sure to tune in next month for our Gym Spotlight! With this new column, each month we’ll be covering an awesome, one-of-a-kind climbing gym somewhere in the USA, like Memphis Rox.
Owen Clarke is a climbing journalist and connoisseur of the art of making easy routes look difficult. He is a columnist for Rock & Ice, Gym Climber, and The Outdoor Journal, and has been climbing for 13 years. Follow his thoughts in his opinion column, “The Choss Pile,” published every Thursday on Rock & Ice.