Climbing High: By Ann Marie Harvey

After almost 14 years of active duty in the Air Force, Major Kenneth Sheyka decided a year ago the time was right to separate and join the Reserves. As a Navigator on the Air Force Special Operations MC-130H Combat Talon (Chariot of Armageddon), he was in the unique position to work full-time in the Reserves as a Navigator and instructor in the Florida Panhandle at the flight schoolhouse at Hurlburt Field. It was also about the time that he began thinking about life after the military. “I began climbing out in New Mexico for my initial qualification training at Stone Age Climbing Gym in 2007,” Ken says. “When I was moved here in 2014, I saw a real need for a climbing gym. In this part of Northwest Florida, it’s really flat and hard to find anything vertical, including something indoors.” With the nearest dedicated climbing gyms more than several hours’ drive away, the time was ripe for a new business to be born. And Destin, Fla., is the perfect location. “Destin has more than three million tourists a year visit from all over the country,” he says. “Not
to mention the 21,000 military members, people who have vacation homes and snowbirds who come to enjoy our beautiful beaches. After I’ve had enough of the beach, I know I go check out the gym wherever I am.” 


Ken is a lover of outdoor activities, whether snowboarding, mountain biking or backpacking. As a New Jersey native and an Eagle Scout, it was a natural transition for him to discover rock climbing. “I’m not a professional climber, but I knew I wanted to do something related to the outdoors after the Air Force,” he explains. With a B.S. degree in Management and Economics and a M.S. in Military Operational Art and Science, Ken was well-versed in what it would take to start a business. Once he identified the need for a rock climbing gym in his market, Ken began researching and preparing. One of the first things he did was to join the Climbing Wall Association (CWA), a group of different rock climbing gym owners and managers. That led to attending their symposium in Colorado last year, where he took workshops, attended informative classes and met others in the industry. “I really took all that in and applied it to what I had learned about the demographics of this area and realized I was onto something,” Ken says. “Rock climbing gyms are a huge growth industry that’s not slowing down anytime soon.” One of the companies Ken connected with while at that symposium was Vertical Solutions out of Utah. “I began working with one of their consultants, Shad Burnham, and he helped confirm my analysis of the demographics and ran through the specific industry of the climbing wall business,” he says. “We ran through different scenarios and everything pointed to this being a successful endeavor for this part of the country.” After a positive informal survey, Ken took a course in Wyoming at the National Outdoor Leadership School. “After 23 days of backpacking in southern Montana and a week of outdoor climbing rope, I pretty much came home and realized that this was something I was passionate about and wanted to do,” he says. “This was the kick in the rear that I needed to get it going.”


Certain that someone else would open a climbing gym if he didn’t, Ken made the decision to not wait around any longer and earnestly began researching what it would take to finance the undertaking he wanted to pursue. After taking an Air Force “Boots to Business” two-day course, Ken took the information he had received about the Small Business Administration (SBA) and benefits that veterans can use to get a business off the ground and began putting together a spreadsheet analysis. “The financial piece is one of the biggest pillars that really sets the foundation of the business,” Ken explains. “I began fine-tuning my financial forecast, put together a consummate business plan and proposal and sought out banks.” Ashley Vannoy at the Destin Office of First Partners Bank loved the concept of the climbing gym and appreciated all the work that Ken had already done. “She told me what I was missing, we teamed up and then we were off and rolling through the application process,” he says. “Once I got financing in place, I was able to go back to Vertical Solutions and get them to develop the concept for the gym I wanted to build.”


The biggest wall to climb was finding a space with the vertical clearance that a climbing gym would need. “It took me eight or nine months to find the right location,” Ken says. “Originally I was looking in Fort Walton Beach, but in the end with the help of my real estate agent I found a new build of a commercial retail property going up in Destin that was exactly what I needed.” The retail property consists of two 16,000-square foot buildings with a 20-foot vertical clearance. “It was divisible into eight 2,000-square foot sections, so I went to the owners and explained that I wanted four sections,” he says. “They liked the idea, so finding that property was the catalyst to set everything else in motion.” Now that he had the perfect space, Ken was able to work with Vertical Solutions to design the space working off the footprint of the building. He was also able to plug some more finite numbers in the financial analysis for First Partners. “It’s been a whirlwind since then,” he says of the dominoes lining up in place. “From meeting with the architects, contractors, the SBA, retailers in the industry to deciding everything from how many and what size rental shoes to buy to the number of bathrooms required of the space, I have become knowledgeable on tons of things I never expected to know.”


One of the things that Ken wants to do with his gym is to foster community among his future members. “I talked to the CrossFit in Destin and one of the biggest draws there is the community,” Ken explains. “Climbing draws a wide range of ages who want to
8 Tools for Success | Spring/Summer 2017
be social and active and around other like-minded people. It’s a neat social draw to be pushed out of your comfort zone and to have people there who are consistently supportive.”  When talking through what he saw his gym looking like, Ken told Vertical Solutions that he wanted a gym that was not just there for the frequent visitor, but the tourist as well. “And I kept coming back to the community piece,” he says. “I want the gym to be a place for people to come and hang out. When you can provide a space for that, it fosters that community and helps grow it as well.”  Ken also sees the gym as a learning place. “When you can’t figure out a specific move, having others there who can talk you through it is so powerful,” he says. “You can ask questions, get help or watch other people to learn.”  


In the middle of all the hustle and bustle of birthing a new business, Ken’s wife, Samantha, gave birth to their first child, Cooper, three weeks early on March 4. “Cooper is our first lifetime member of the gym and a future employee, whether he likes it or not,” Ken says with a laugh.  Samantha has been very supportive of Ken’s dream and likely will be helping out as her job as a nurse allows. “She has been instrumental throughout the process with her input and has been a great sounding board,” Ken explains. “Not only is she the love of my life, but also my teammate and is invested as well.”  
BUILDING UP Now that the architectural design work is almost finished and the permits from the city applied for, the build-out of the interior will start soon. Vertical Solutions is engineering the walls and building them in Utah and then shipping them in containers to Florida where they will be assembled on site. “We are on target for that to start by the beginning of April with things about 90 percent complete as we get into May,” Ken says. “Our first big event will take place May 12-13, called Setter Showdown.” Setter Showdown is an organization that holds competitions at different climbing gyms around the country. Competitors actually help set the routes, or the removable holds, that you climb on. “The draw of an indoor climbing wall is that there are many varied routes of different abilities and skill levels for people to climb—and they can be changed out,” Ken explains. “Route setters from across the country will compete against each other while setting up the
first set of routes. It’s something we will change out frequently.” The two-day competition will culminate with an open house for the public to visit and will serve as the soft opening for Rock Out Climbing Gym. The grand opening is set for Memorial Day a few weeks later.  The building will be divided into several sections. The front desk will be made from the same wood as the climbing wall and will house a retail area around it. Memberships will be available on a monthly basis or you can purchase a daily pass or a certain number of visits a month. Once you walk into the gym, you will see two distinct wall sections highlighted by spotlights—one that is linear across the back and one shaped like an “L.” In the back corner there will be a basic fitness area containing equipment like a treadmill, a rower, a bike, kettlebells and wall balls to get warmed up. The multi-purpose room will host kids’ birthday parties or corporate team-building outings.  The last piece of the puzzle will be for Ken to hire qualified employees. In addition to himself, he is looking to bring four others on board at the beginning and has posted on some climbing sites looking for those with climbing qualifications. “We will also hire someone to work the front desk and the retail side of things who doesn’t necessarily have to have climbing experience,” he says. “And for those who don’t have a background, we want to work with them to help them develop their skills and grow.” There are lots of loose ends to tie up before the slated opening date, but Ken is excited to see things come to fruition and has plans for the future as well, including adding kids’ summer camps and perhaps hiring independent contractors such as a yoga instructor to use the fitness area before the gym opens at 11:00 a.m. “There are lots of long nights and busy weekends. Like every other large venture, you’re never going to have enough time, money or people,” Ken says. “But I can’t think like that. I’m learning as I go and I’m most excited about seeing the community come together around something they were looking for but didn’t realize it.”

Ann Marie Harvey is Vice President of Communications at Vertical Solutions Media. She specializes in creating dynamic copy that is both genuine and compelling. Editing the written word is her passion.