The city of Gainesville voted to continue exploring an unsolicited proposal from a local climbing gym during Thursday’s General Policy Committee meeting.
The unsolicited proposal came from Mike Palmer and Mitchell Eadens, owners of The Knot, a climbing gym off South Main Street. The gym started in 2019 after significant renovations to the facility, and the owners incubated at GTEC, the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneur Center, prior to the business launch.
The owners proposed buying the city’s old Regional Transit System (RTS) building that borders the south side of Depot Park and turning it into a hub of community activity. The climbing gym would anchor the site with the opportunity for a food vendor and potentially a skate park and shop.
The commission voted 4-3 to continue with the proposal to the next phase, conducting a property appraisal and environmental study, working with The Knot to expand the proposal and posting the opportunity for other groups to submit plans for the location.
Palmer told the commission that gym membership has grown more than expected over the past two years. He said members have even dropped off because of the crowding. A new space would allow expansion and Olympic-standard facilities with a height of 15 meters.
“We’re also pretty limited by our current facility, where we’re unable to serve kids and families and other organizations the way we’d like to,” Palmer said. “An opportunity like this would allow us to expand our business and expand some of the programs we have.”
Palmer said the gym wants to stay downtown and close to east Gainesville to support those communities.
Erik Bredfeldt, economic development and innovation director, gave background on the site. He said the facility has been vacant since 2016 and is used for overflow parking and some storage.
Since 2019, he said different groups had verbalized interest in the facility, but no one had brought forward actual plans. He said the site includes complications from past agreements with the Federal Transit Administration and added that the proposal conforms to the city’s new downtown strategic plan.
Palmer and Eadens submitted their plan during a seven-month window opened by the city commission in 2022 for unsolicited proposals. The commission developed a policy for unsolicited proposals after an east Gainesville grocery store proposal came before the city.
City Manager Cynthia Curry said the city received two proposals during the open window. Staff found The Knot’s proposal interesting and worked through the conceptual overview. The Knot paid $1,000 for the city’s consideration.
Curry said staff wanted to bring the overall concept to the commission before moving forward on details needed for a fully developed plan.
If the commission had no desire to move forward, the project would end. If the commission had an interest in developing the site, the city would continue through its typical procurement process and test run the entire unsolicited proposal framework.
Curry emphasized that the project remained in an early stage of development. Many questions asked by commissioners would be answered in the next stage, Curry said, and the commission could end the project later.
Even after accepting bids from other groups, the commission could decide not to move forward with any proposal and keep the land.
Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker, Cynthia Chestnut and Ed Book voted against moving forward.
Duncan-Walker said she wanted to avoid deciding what to do with city property in isolation. She said she’d want to look at all city property and hold a discussion on how to move forward. Book also expressed concern at dedicating staff time to the project when the city needed to address its fiscal problems.
Commissioner Reina Saco said the property has cost the city money since turning vacant in 2016, adding that the land is a liability. She backed Palmer and Eadens’ plan.
“I personally love the idea,” Saco said. “Obviously, we’re going to follow, if we do anything, that procurement process because it is only fair.”
She said selling the property would provide economic development, and revenue, to the city. Plus, the city can add stipulations to the contract—setting job goals and development timelines. Palmer said the climbing gym would need 30-40 employees along with employees for the additional vendors on the property.
The city has revitalized the area along South Main Street, with Depot Park opening in 2016 and the Cade Museum opening in 2018. Commissioners noted that a new appraisal would likely show a higher price tag than the 2016 appraisal of $1.8 million.
The proposal mirrors other city plans to re-imagine the Power District located just northeast of Depot Park. Bredfeldt said the city had even considered adding the old RTS site to the Power District, a 17- to 22-acre cluster of unused GRU buildings.