Riverfront rewards

Riverfront rewards

October 6th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The three local outdoor enthusiasts who unveiled plans Thursday to open two new outdoor-oriented businesses in the former Bijou Theater couldn't have picked a more fitting time. Their announcement coincided with the kickoff of the third annual RiverRocks festival, which celebrates -- with more than 100 events over 10 days -- the rich natural resources here that attract climbers, paddlers, cyclists, hikers, trail runners, river swimmers, walkers and horse riders. The new riverfront district stores surely will help attract this crowd, and many other future visitors, to downtown's amenities.

The Block -- the new name for the remodeled theater building that will house these businesses by next summer -- will certainly stand out. One reason is that people will be hanging off the building. Literally. That's because one of the new businesses, High Point Climbing, will feature a novel outdoor climbing wall that will rise 55-feet above a second-story access deck along the Broad Street side of the CARTA parking garage that begins on 3rd Street.

CARTA buses will travel under climbers on the outdoor wall as they enter the building's bus passage on Broad under the climbers' deck. We imagine diners at the street cafes and pedestrians who routinely traverse the busy north end of Broad Street to-and-from the riverfront and the Tennessee Aquarium will often be looking up to follow the climbers' efforts.

The outdoor climbing wall also promises to be a unique piece of architecture, but it isn't High Point Climbing's only feature. The gym will also offer a large indoor climbing wall in the expansive and deepened interior of the former multiplex movie theater. High Point Climbing's gym space will also accommodate a mezzanine and lockers and showers for the gym.

Owners John O'Brien and Jon Wiygul, outdoor athletes as well as businessmen, reasonably believe the new climbing gym and equipment center will help enough lure climbers from the around the region to justify their sizable investment in the venture. The Chattanooga region is already a nationally acclaimed climbing center, and climbing has become one of the nation's three fastest-growing sports.

Dawson Wheeler, owner of the popular Rock/Creek stores and a sponsor of today's annual Stump Jump, a rigorous and widely followed 50-kilometer trail run, will also open a new store in The Block. The 3,800 square-foot store will feature new lines of apparel and equipment that will differentiate it from Rock/Creek's other area stores. Two other spaces are available for other tenants.

The $4 million development is notable for several reasons. It marks another civic milestone for River City Co., the city's self-funded downtown development agency, which is reinvesting $1.6 million in development loans to The Block project from the sale of its Riverset Apartments. It also concludes River City's three-year search to find unique tenants and businesses for the site that will exponentially boost the commercial synergy that animates and elevates downtown development. And it engages private market businesses and capital in pursuit of those civic and commercial goals.

Lastly, the development further reflects the fruit of pump-priming investments by both city and county governments in downtown amenities -- for example, the Riverwalk, the Aquarium Plaza, North Shore public parks and public art -- that make the city more livable, more attractive and, as a result, more prosperous and more able to lure new businesses, plants and economic development.

All these benefits accrue to seed money in downtown development that comes from taxpayers through property and sales taxes and state and federal grants, as well as through gifts from foundations and the private sector. These investments are spinning off returns of around $13 to $15 in economic development for every single dollar of public investments, and taxpayers are reaping the payoff in multiple ways.