In a dozen years, Jim Rott took his climbing gym, Steepworld, as high as he could. Now he’s taking on two partners to summit a new peak.
Rott has joined with a father-and-son team, Scott and Heath Lillie, to build a new, larger facility on Billings West End. The new gym, to be known as Steepworld Climbing and Fitness, will have more retail space, taller walls and new equipment to broaden the appeal of a unique brand.
“I knew that this next step had to happen,” Rott said during a recent unveiling party at the current gym at 208 N. 13th St.
Work is currently underway at the new site at 1230 S. 31st St. W., a vacant lot across the street from Canyon Creek Brewery. The owners hope to relocate into the new space by the fall.
The $851,000 building will be larger than Steepworld’s current space tucked in North Billings' light industrial area. Most significantly, for a climbing gym, the new facility will have walls that considerably taller, Rott said.
“We’re more than doubling in height” to 41 feet, he said.
Other additions will include a yoga studio, a private party room, cardio and other fitness equipment and shower facilities.
Steep World has four employees now, and Rott hopes to grow the staff to 15 to 20 in the new building, which will include an expanded retail space.
Climbing gyms are a newer trend in the fitness industry, and others have popped up in Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls and Kalispell.
According to Climbing Business Journal, industry growth nationwide tapered off in 2016 with an “anemic” growth rate of 6.9 percent. This followed the climbing gym industry’s best year since the recession, 2015, when operators were bullish on expansion, the trade journal reported.
Several factors have slowed the opening of new gyms, including market saturation and trading aging facilities for new ones, as is the case for Steepworld, industry analysts say.
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Rott has climbed for decades and learned the business working at the Base Camp. He started Steepworld in 2005 and quickly realized he could turn climbing into a year-round activity.
“A climber can actually never go outside,” Rott said.
Heath Lillie has been climbing for 20 years and is currently a firefighter/ paramedic. He met Rott as a climbing student in 1997, shortly after his family moved to the Billings area. His father has deep business experience as a former executive for the Walt Disney Co.
The Lillies had explored opening a new climbing center in Rapid City, S.D., where Heath Lillie had previously worked. When they learned that Rott was looking to expand, they changed course and formed the partnership.
The father and son are focused on this current project but are considering expanding the brand to other cities, Heath Lillie said.
Steepworld has about 130 members, and the owners are hoping to grow the business by selling more climbing gear and housing everything members need under one roof.
“What we’re doing is a climbing center… It brings everybody in,” Lillie said.
The new gym will have three sections. Boulderland will be a smaller space designed for kids. Downstairs is an area for rope climbing on Waltopia-branded walls for all skill levels. The last section is a wall that stands the height of the building, roughly the same height as a popular climbing section of the Rimrocks north of Billings, Rott said.
The building was designed by A&E Architects, and the contractor is Jones Construction. Both are Billings-based firms.
First Interstate Bank helped finance the project with loans backed by the Small Business Administration, Rott said.