"climb zion" gym, unique community center, coming to historic tremont church

Imagine vertically climbing past a 130-year-old stained glass window through a working bell tower, settling into the Downward Facing Dog pose in a vintage auditorium, or scaling a bouldering wall in a holy sanctuary.

Sound like heaven? Try Tremont.

The notion is soon to become a reality when local entrepreneurs Niki Zmij and Chick Holtkamp bring their love of climbing to the north coast by way of a unique project.

"We both have strong ties to Cleveland," says Holtkamp, a seasoned climber and real estate investor whose family has been handcrafting pipe organs here for more than 150 years. "There's always an opportunity to move somewhere else. We want to bring some of what we learned out there back here."

"Out there" refers to more than 50 climbing gyms in 12 states the couple toured in order to shape their vision of "Climb Zion," the transformation of the Zion United Church of Christ, 2716 West 14th Street, into a 40,000-square-foot community center that will feature climbing, yoga, community activities, a café, lounge areas and even a sauna. While the facility will cater to advanced climbers, the larger intent is to be all-inclusive.
<span class="content-image-text">Niki Zmij and Chick Holtkamp</span>Niki Zmij and Chick Holtkamp 
"We want to build a place that has stuff to challenge the really hard core climbers," says Zmij, "but also has stuff that's achievable and fun for someone who walks in off the street." To that end, it's not hard to imagine a chaperoning parent or uncle sipping coffee, watching climbers scale the array of walls and thinking: looks fun … I could do that ...

The result when they take the plunge?

"People surprise themselves and blow expectations out of the water," says Zmij.

Plans include building a large addition in the rear of the property that will house the main climbing gym and connect to the existing buildings, which include the church proper and a schoolhouse. The area between those buildings would become an atrium that will echo the Ames Family Atrium at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

"We were really inspired by what they did," says Zmij, noting how the CMA atrium turned beautiful exterior walls into beautiful interior walls. "All of these stained glass windows will be inside the atrium between these two gothic style buildings.
It's like being in a European village."

One aspect of the project that separates it from the handful of other renovated church/climbing gyms across the country is that the parishioners of Zion United Church of Christ will still convene in the main sanctuary on Sundays, just like they have since 1885 when the church was dedicated (the congregation is older still, dating back to 1867).

Once numbering in the thousands, there are now less than 20 church members.

"As you can imagine," says Zmij, "the upkeep of these buildings has become difficult." But the prospect of the climbing gym has put some pep in parishioners' steps. "I think they're excited about more people coming to this place," she says, adding that the exposure may translate to more members. "How cool would it be to stay after your Sunday church service and climb for a couple of hours?"
<span class="content-image-text">Zion United Church of Christ</span>Zion United Church of Christ 
The couple expects to close on the purchase of the property, details of which are confidential, this summer. They are also negotiating with the Ohio Department of Transportation regarding an adjacent vacant property, which would facilitate parking for 80 to 90 vehicles.

Access will be public, with membership plans for the committed and day passes for the curious.

As for total renovation costs, "It depends on how you do it," says Holtkamp. "If we phase it in, then our renovation budget is in the order of $2.5 million. If we do it all at once, it's more like $4 million." Optimistic scheduling includes a late summer/early fall 2015 groundbreaking and early 2016 opening.

"We think it's definitely possible," says Zmij. "It would be great to be open for the Republican National Convention."

Traditional financing, private investors and (hopefully) an historic preservation tax credit, for which the couple will apply next month, will fund the project.

"We're committed to making this happen whether it's with the tax credits or without," says Zmij. "We have some dollars locked in."

While both are part of the hardcore climbing scene, Holtkamp recalls when the sport was mainly practiced outdoors by men in their twenties.

"Indoor climbing has grown up. We know how to do things really well now," he says of the niche industry that produces climbing wall equipment. "It's a good time to start doing this."

The demographic has changed as well, with about a 50/50 split between men and women and an age range that has expanded on both ends.

"Four-year-olds climb and 90-year-olds climb," says Holtkamp. "The gym will be built to accommodate all of these people."

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.