The Rock Dump building, owned by Alaska Coach Tours since 2012, has been rented by the nonprofit Juneau Climbing & Recreation. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

The Rock Dump building, owned by Alaska Coach Tours since 2012, has been rented by the nonprofit Juneau Climbing & Recreation. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Rock Dump climbing gym on the move after sweetheart lease runs course

The Rock Dump indoor climbing gym is en route to a new home. Where that route ends, gym operators don’t know.

In a Jan. 6 letter addressed to the Juneau community, members of the Juneau Climbing & Recreation board, a nonprofit which has run the gym for 4 1/2 years, updated the community on their intention to move the Rock Dump from its Thane Road location.

“Juneau Climbing & Recreation is considering the Rock Dump’s long-term options and putting together a business plan,” wrote the JCR board. In a Tuesday phone call, board member Tyler Gress said the company is looking for a profitable alternative, which could mean downsizing to a bouldering gym.

“We have explored many, many options,” Gress said. “We cast the net really wide because it’s not only where are we gonna be but where are we gonna find the money to pay for a new place.”

A comparable space to the Thane Road location would cost “upward of $1 million,” Gress said, money JCR doesn’t have. The Rock Dump hasn’t been profitable for years and has only been able to stay in business thanks to a generous deal from Alaska Coach Tours.

The group has rented the building at below market rates since 2012, when Rock Dump founder Matthew Cecil ceased business operations and sold the building to Alaska Coach Tours. The tour company originally cut a deal with JCR, formed by local climbers, to operate the gym until the end of that year, but ended up renewing the lease indefinitely in an effort to keep the gym open despite not being able to develop the space.

“The partnership was intended to be short-term, but every year Alaska Coach continued to renew the lease and to subsidize the rent,” the JCR board wrote. “The Rock Dump would not have been able to remain open for the last 4+ years if it had not been for the support of Alaska Coach Tours.”

Company president Dennis McDonnell explained that Alaska Coach Tours had “put their plans on hold” for the building for years “without any regrets,” as helping to keep the town’s only rock climbing gym open was the “right thing to do” for the community.

“Many people don’t realize that Alaska Coach Tours is owned by Alaskans, of which four partners live in Juneau,” McDonnell wrote. “We are more than satisfied with the thought that we helped keep this gym going both operationally and financially.”

Last November the company informed JCR that they couldn’t continue subsidizing the climbing gym. The rent the Rock Dump paid didn’t pay for Alaska Coach Tour’s mortgage.

But, at least initially, the deal didn’t cost the tour company much as Alaska Coach Tours didn’t have a need for the gym space. It would have remained unoccupied for at least a small window of time. So, when on a tour of the building with McDonnell in 2012, Gress proposed the idea of renting the unused gym space for less than market value before finding a new place.

“I just thought it couldn’t hurt to ask,” said Gress, who was a caretaker for the building in Cecil’s absence.

McDonnell, whom Gress called, “one of the greatest guys on the planet,” agreed to rent the space out for cheap, allowing JCR to pay for utilities but not charging them enough to pay the building’s mortgage. To make the deal work, the two groups would have to redo the purchasing agreement.

One problem was that Alaska Coach Tour’s purchase agreement for the building included all of Cecil’s personal property inside: the hand holds, harnesses, mats, hardware and tools which make the climbing gym possible. A clause in the agreement also required Alaska Coach Tours to immediately demolish rock climbing structures in the building.

McDonnell agreed to donate all the climbing equipment to the Rock Dump climbers and reworked the agreement to keep the climbing walls standing.

After the eight-month lease was up, JCR asked if they could renew their agreement, which meant Alaska Coach Tours had to shut down trolley operations due to not being able to park the vehicles inside the Rock Dump building. Despite the climbing gym now hurting business, McDonnell again agreed.

In the years since, JCR has been unable to find a profitable alternative to the Thane Road location. But unable to let go of their beloved gym, JCR “just kept carrying on year to year and Coach kept renewing the lease year to year, which has been great,” Gress said.

JCR has many ideas on moving forward, but are running into several road blocks on keeping the Rock Dump going as is. The cost of a mortgage for a new building and operating costs makes the situation “a little grim” said Gress.

They need city or state backing, which Gress said isn’t likely given budget concerns, or a big windfall in the form of a fundraising campaign.

Making things tougher, the Internal Revenue Service denied JCR status as a 501(c)(3) charity, meaning donations to the group can’t be written off as taxes.

On Tuesday, McDonnell agreed to allow the group to stay in the building until July 1, giving JCR a little more time to find an alternative. Gress said the group’s priority right now is maintaining continuity for members: They want to find a space to move into right away so they can transition their members to a new facility without a break in service.

The new deadline has “put the fire out for now,” Gress said.



• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or



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