TRAVERSE CITY — For majority partner Kevin Vlach, it began in Spain and was fed by the mountains of Colorado.
A start in slacklining and a climbing gym in Pittsburgh hooked in Nick Olson.
Soon Traverse City, which sits at an elevation of 626 feet, will be able to climb with the same passion Vlach and Olson discovered. The TC natives and University of Michigan graduates plan to open ELEV8 Climbing Gym in the middle of 2021, in the middle of Traverse City.
The name of the 10,000-square-foot fitness facility at 510 Barlow St. fits right in with its proximity to Eighth Street. Though “ELEV8” is more about the mission and the Retraced Figure 8, the preferred climbing knot.
“It worked out that way,” said Vlach, a 2005 graduate of TC West High School. “That wasn’t the original intent. I liked the name; I liked the message that it sends.
“It’s elevating the offerings of Traverse City and making this amazing place we love that much better.”
Vlach and Olson, a 2002 TC Central grad, said it took time to find the right place to build. Vlach said reworking either of two existing structures capable of hosting 40-foot high walls for climbing would have had been “a massive undertaking and a lot of red tape.”
So finding this parcel and getting Comstock Construction to work on the project proved to be perfect.
“You don’t want to compromise too much on property,” Vlach said. “Visibility and accessibility are key in this business.
“It just feels like we couldn’t have come across a better spot. If we had the pick of the litter, I could see is being over there.”
ELEV8 is just south of McClain Cycle & Fitness and Brick Wheels and a couple of pedals away from City Bike Shop. The TART and Boardman Lake Trail are a short distance away and it fits in with the North Boardman Lake District Health and Wellness Corridor.
The Traverse Area District Library and a BATA bus stop are close. There are even three microbreweries a short distance away.
Construction on ELEV8 began last month, but the idea of bringing a climbing gym and fitness facility precedes Vlach’s return to TC at the end of 2016. Vlach was at the end of a 5½-year run in Colorado where he was an arborist and volunteered with an Alpine search and rescue team.
“I had a year’s worth of work into it prior to coming back,” he said fo the ELEV8 project.
Climbing was a big part of his life in Colorado, but Vlach was first exposed to the sport while teaching English for two years in two different parts of Spain.
“I kind of just inadvertently stumbled on rock climbing in Spain, not knowing Spain is world-class destination for rock climbing and has a strong rock-climbing culture,” Vlach said. “I got a pair of shoes, some chalk bags and was climbing on some rocks cemented to a drainage tunnel on a highway overpass.”
Olson had experience slacklining — which Wikipedia describes as “the act of walking, running or balancing along a suspended length of flat webbing that is tensioned between two anchors” — and discovered an indoor climbing gym during a business trip to Pennsylvania.
“I started climbing at this real nice gym called Ascend in Pittsburgh,” Olson said. “I fell in love with rock climbing. I was a slackliner before I was a rock climber, but there are a lot of overlap in the communities.”
Olson owned and ran for eight years the first Jimmy John’s franchise in New Jersey, before returning to TC in late 2017. He also operated and later sold a bookkeeping company for Jimmy John’s franchises that “allowed me the flexibility to come back to Traverse City and pursue other opportunities I wanted to pursue.”
Vlach, who took a job at Red Spire Brunch House when he returned to TC, already has worked with the local Small Business Development Center and SCORE.
A business plan already existed and some investment was in place when Olson asked someone at Backcountry North about rumors of a climbing gym coming to Traverse City.
He was referred to “a guy named Nick with long hair” at Red Spire. After meeting and talking with Vlach, Olson was on board.
“He had (a business plan) all put together before I came into the picture two years ago,” said Olson, who does consulting work for his bookkeeping business and opened Huddleson Farm in Kewadin with his partner.
Vlach and Olson are incorporating their own experiences into ELEV8. The duo also visited other indoor climbing gyms to learn best practices.
“We visited a lot of facilities in the state and other parts of the country,” Olson said. “We talked to a lot of owners.”
Nearly 6,000 of the 10,000 square feet will be dedicated to climbing, Vlach said. Both roped and un-roped climbing will be available, he said. Un-roped climbing will include a 14-foot “bouldering” section where participants’ feet will be a maximum of eight feet off a soft foam surface.
Roped climbing will feature top-rope belay and lead climbing. Solo climbers will use an auto belay system.
“We will have all of that available at the gym,” Vlach said. “It opens it up to all different levels of climbing opportunities.”
The chance to attract all abilities and entire families will be a big emphasis at ELEV8, Vlach and Olson said. Vlach said his daughter was in a climbing harness at the age of 3.
With supervision and instruction, climbing can be for any age, he said.
Vlach said as long as safety is the number-one priority, climbing can appeal to everyone. He said fees at ELEV8 will reflect that idea. Membership and punch-cards will be available for more committed climbers. Single-visit options will be available for potential enthusiasts.
“It can be as extreme a sport as you want it to be; It can be as safe a sport as you want it to be,” Vlach said. “The purpose of the gym environment is to minimize the risks.”
ELEV8 also won’t be just climbing. It will offer yoga and fitness classes, weight and exercise equipment and on-site daycare.
“The key to a well-rounded fitness facility is to have all the amenities available,” Vlach said.
A late spring or early summer opening in 2021 is planned, staffed by a dozen or so employees. Olson and Vlach are anxious for ELEV8 to ascend to lofty heights next year.
“That is the projected timeline,” Vlach said. “We are at the mercy of the state of affairs of the pandemic.”
Follow ELEV8 on Instagram and Facebook or sign up for updates at www.ELEV8climbing.com.