A million-dollar climbing wall coming to a new park in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood is the first in The North Face’s “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaign, which the apparel maker hopes will skew the national dialogue around walls away from politics toward rocky cliffs that inspire, challenge and unite.
The wall, part of the soon-to-open Montbello Open Space Park, is part of a statewide master plan to get more kids outside. It also reflects the intent of Colorado’s efforts to land the influential Outdoor Retailer trade shows in Denver and jibes with the outdoor industry’s work to attract more diverse customers and leaders.
“There’s sort of no downside here,” said Tom Herbst, the marketing boss at The North Face, which last summer launched its “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” with free climbing days at 50 gyms across the world. The climbing wall in Montbello, which should be open by summer, is the first of at least four public facilities The North Face hopes to build in underserved urban communities across the country.
“If we can do 30 more, I’ll do 30 more,” Herbst said. “There’s just a ton of discussion out there right now surrounding public lands, and … urban public lands can be overlooked in those conversations.”
The confluence of all the effort between The North Face, the Trust for Public Lands, Great Outdoors Colorado and the nonprofit Environmental Learning for Kids arrives in the form of a climbing wall in a blossoming community park adjacent to a low-income community that’s a short stroll from Rocky Mountain Arsenal, the chemical manufacturing plant-turned-wildlife refuge.
Montbello, a community of 35,000, is about 60 percent Latino. The Piton Foundation estimates about 23 percent of the community’s families live in poverty and 40 percent of Montbello kids live in single-parent homes. And there aren’t many parks.
The Trust for Public Lands bought the 5.5-acre vacant lot, which sits across from a 7-Eleven at Albrook Drive and East 46th Avenue, as part of its goal to seed parks within 10 minutes of every urban American. The trust gave the parcel to the city of Denver in December 2014, and the city inked a long-term lease with Environmental Learning for Kids, which envisioned the community’s first open-space park, offering gardens, kiosks, trails and an educational center providing science and outdoor programs to kids who might not be looking at careers in science.
Construction of the open-space portions of the $6 million park began in May 2016.
A climbing wall and the park’s natural play areas feed into ELK’s underlying mission to push local kids into the outdoors to spark leadership that could lead to jobs in science, technology, engineering and natural resources.
“What a great metaphor that this is about climbing, just getting kids out climbing and learning what that means, with team-building and relying on other people and challenging themselves,” said Loretta Pineda, the executive director of the 20-year-old Environmental Learning for Kids group. “I want them to climb into the boardroom and climb into these other fields of natural resources where they can be in the place where the decisions are being made on public lands and these kinds of public places.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2016 announced what he called an “intoxicating vision” where, within a generation, every resident of Colorado will live within a 10-minute walk of green space and trails. Great Outdoors Colorado launched a sort of GOCO 2.0 to direct lottery funds beyond land preservation and toward inspiring Coloradans to enjoy those open spaces. Later that year, GOCO tapped six pilot communities for the first round of funding under the Inspire Initiative, delivering $2.7 million to a coalition of northeast metro groups pushing to expand access to Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge and develop outdoor recreation programs through the Bluff Lake Nature Center and Environmental Learning for Kids.
The North Face was initially drawn to Denver through its work with the Trust for Public Lands. It’s coincidental that the company was able to announce the first public climbing wall in its “Walls Are Meant for Climbing” campaign during Denver’s first hosting of the combined Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show event.
But the state labored to lure Outdoor Retailer — a rally of the continent’s outdoor gear makers and retailers — with the aspiration that outdoor businesses could establish Colorado as an outdoor industry hub. Landing a $1 million investment from a giant in the industry on the first day of the show is a check in the “win” column. And adding to the win, fitness app Strava announced Tuesday it was opening an engineering office in downtown, where it hopes to employ at least 89 workers in the next three years.
Jim Petterson, the Trust for Public Land’s Colorado state director, hopes the Montbello park becomes a trailhead for deeper exploration. Maybe after climbing on the wall at the park, kids and parents will venture into the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge down the street. Then maybe they will explore deeper into the Rocky Mountains.
“We in Colorado are blessed with great access to the outdoors, but that access is not available to everybody, and that means we all need to pull together to make sure every kid in the Denver metro area, Colorado Springs, Aurora, everywhere has the opportunity to get outdoors and, most importantly, get physically active,” Petterson said. “One thing I think is cool is the route we are trying to get up when bouldering is called a problem. This is about coupling teamwork with problem solving and enhancing access to the outdoors. It’s such a perfect match.”