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Interview: Joe Anderson on Gym Ownership During a Pandemic

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Joe Anderson is a gym owner with three, soon to be four, climbing gyms across the Midwest. He is perhaps most well known for Hoosier Heights in Bloomington, Indiana, a gym which he converted from an old baptist church.

[Also Read: Leap of Faith: How a Baptist Church Became a Climbing Gym]

Gym Climber caught up with Anderson to discuss his role in the industry and the difficulties of owning a gym during the coronavirus pandemic.

Firstly, tell me a little bit about yourself. How are you involved with the climbing industry?

I own rock climbing gyms. That’s what I do. I own Hoosier Heights with locations in Indianapolis and Bloomington, Indiana, and I own Climb Nulu, in Louisville Kentucky. We’re also opening a fourth gym called ClimbCinci in Cincinnati, which should be opening soon.


How are you doing? How are you coping with the ongoing crisis?

It would be more fun to be at work, working. I think it’s the most difficult thing that we have faced as a company and also as an industry. I know that my friends and I in the industry feel like we’ll come out of this alive, so that’s good. But I think that nobody knows what the landscape of climbing is going to look like when we’re “back to normal.” Are people still going to want to come climbing? Will there be a lot of hesitation for people who want to try climbing at a climbing gym? … And I’m sure it’s going to take time for people to feel totally comfortable going to a social place where people are talking and touching, engaged and happy again. It’s going to be hard.


How has your schedule changed since the outbreak?  

I have never worked harder for no money, like three weeks. That’s the truth. There’s been a mountain of things on the plate to do because I feel like right now my job as an owner is to optimize the outcomes for everyone—for my employees, for myself, for our business. I’m trying to manage both the survival of my business as a whole, as well as the pay and sustainability of the lives of my employees. Trying to manage all of those things at once is a whole lot of work, and … It’s work that has to be done by me, nobody else can do it. It’s weird that when the gym closes, you get a lot more work. When the gym is open, the ship is sailing, and people are coming and climbing, and we deal with our day-to-day challenges and whatnot, but when the gym is forced closed in a situation like this… There was a period where it was an all hands on deck situation to decide what we’re going to do, but ultimately once those decisions are made, it’s on me to go forward.

Are you continuing to pay your employees?

That’s a complicated question. We continued to pay employees for as long as it made sense quite honestly. With the way unemployment benefits have been structured now, it actually made more financial sense for my employees, for many of them, to go on unemployment, because of the federal $600 additional weekly benefits. During the CARES Act, they put in place a federal $600 additional benefits for state unemployment benefits for everyone in the country, regardless of what you were paid before you went on unemployment. 

Essentially the plan is that when we reopen, everyone comes back, and this is complicated by the Payroll Protection Program, which I’ve applied for as a business, because if that funding comes through, then it’s likely that people will be able to be brought back a lot sooner than just waiting until we can reopen the doors … But ultimately, because of the $600 federal benefit for unemployment that’s in the CARES act, my employees, and from all the other owners I’ve talked to, the vast majority of employees around the country in climbing gyms are going to make more money being furloughed until gyms can open again than just to continue to be paid out of a business that is generating no revenue, to sit home. 

In the current state of things, there’s a big debate about if people should be working at a climbing gym. Whether they can go and do things there, clean or route set, or do things like that. It’s unclear if that’s even acceptable or not. What my choice has been is instead of continuing to ask members to pay so we can keep everyone on payroll, to me, the most correct thing to do is to move people to unemployment where they make more money—I’m not asking for members to continue to pay for memberships that they can’t use, and in that instance, everybody is surviving.


Are you receiving any funding or grants to help out at this time? I know you mentioned the Payroll Protection Program, maybe you could elaborate on that.

As a business, obviously I’ve applied for the Payroll Protection Program through my lender, we’ll see if that comes through. I think that most climbing gyms in America who have a good relationship with the bank, applied or will be applying for that program. I would be shocked if there’s businesses who choose not to apply, it would be strange to me to do that. How that’s going to affect the business is still unclear, it’s still up in the air at this point. This is literally day-to-day on these things. My application went through early last week when the CARES act was passed, so who knows.


How long do you think that you and your gyms can stand to be closed for?

I don’t know, I think that for our personal situation, without going into too much detail, so much is up in the air about what kinds of federal funds are going to be available, what my relationship is with my bank, and what they choose to fund and what they don’t choose to fund. Just speaking about my business personally, I don’t feel like I’m in as dire of a situation as probably a lot of restaurants and bars are in. I feel fortunate to be in an industry where smart people have tried to save for a rainy day, so I think that helps. I can’t exactly put a timeline on ‘okay we can be closed for this much time’


Are you receiving any relief from building owners as far as lease?

Yeah, basically we’ve received. Relief may be the wrong way to put it, you know, we’ve asked for rent deferrals. … Depending on how much longer things continue we might need some essential, I wouldn’t call it relief, but I’ll pay you next month twice as much. I think every climbing gym in the industry, if they have half a brain, they’re talking to their lenders and their landlords, and saying ‘let’s work together to get through this.’ That’s the real answer. Most people have been really understanding during this time of crisis, we all have to work together to find the best solutions for survival.


Best of luck to Anderson all other gym owners! Please email if you’re a gym owner with a story.

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