Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Interview with Rock Oasis' Founder and President

I had a chance to sit down for a short talk with Karen McGilvray, the founder and president of The Rock Oasis. We talked about the history of how the climbing gym came about. It's a great story, which deserves to be shared -- particularly at this moment in time.

Birth of a Climbing Gym (or three)
Karen McGilvray has been intimately involved in the Toronto climbing community, for close to two decades.

Karen McGilvray, Rock Oasis President
An accomplished outdoor climber (an all female ascent of El Capitan is one of her notable climbs), McGilvray has been the Treasurer of the Alpine Club of Canada for over 12 years. She was the recipient of the 2010 Don Forest Service Award, and has also helped organize the Banff Mountain Film Festival screenings in Toronto.

At the beginning of the 1990s, McGilvray was a climber at the only climbing gym then operating in Toronto, Joe Rockhead's. Climbing at the time was far from the mainstream, and was seen as an 'extreme' sport for adventurers. Rockhead's (both at their original roost near Lansdowne, and then at the present location in Liberty Village) was the sole public facility available.

The market for climbing was nascent, and indoor climbing was really just a convenient means for outdoor climbers to train during the winter months, as opposed to a recreational activity in its own right.

Toronto Climbing Academy
It was at Rockhead's that McGilvray encountered Sasha Akalski, a former coach of the Bulgarian Sports Climbing team.

Having graduated from the University of Waterloo with a degree in Mathematics, and then going on to acquire an MBA from Queens, McGilvray was looking for an opportunity to directly exercise her entrepreneurial talents. She had worked at jobs doing financial analyses for businesses, but wanted to find something that dovetailed with her outdoor interests.

Teaming up with Akalski as a partner, McGilvray decided to start a new rock climbing gym -- the Toronto Climbing Academy (TCA). TCA was opened in 1993 in a warehouse on the east side of Toronto, near Queen and Broadview.

The partnership would not last.

"We had different assumptions," McGilvray commented.

Subsequently, she sold her interest in TCA. This left McGilvray in a peculiar and distressing quandary: she wasn't able to climb indoors anywhere!

Joe Rockhead's declined to let her train at their facility -- after all, she had started a competitive gym. And she had just severed her business relationship with TCA. As a result, she no longer had anywhere to climb indoors -- what could she do?

The Rock Oasis
The answer, of course, was to start another gym -- The Rock Oasis.

"There are really two main challenges to starting a climbing gym," McGilvray told me. "Financing, and location."

Banks at the time were leery of financing indoor climbing gyms, as it was a business model outside of their regular experience. However, McGilvray was able to use the proceeds of her TCA disposition, along with support from friends and family, to largely fund the new venture.

Photos of the gym's construction

As for the location -- McGilvray discovered the Doty Works after a search of the area, which was influenced by the geographic location of the other two gyms -- Rockhead's lay in the west end of Toronto, and TCA was in the east. The Rock Oasis, she determined, would take the centre.

Despite being advised by an experienced and well-known outdoor guide that "it couldn't be done" at the Bathurst and Front location -- McGilvray decided to proceed.

The Rock Oasis adventure had begun!

Entrance to good times: The Rock Oasis

Prior to McGilvray's arrival, the building had been occupied by Bathurst Tool and Die for many years, but eventually they moved their factory to Mississauga. It was then used by a precision tooling company, and then ultimately it was used for a clothing and fashion showroom.

A false ceiling had been put in, at 20-feet, which was removed for the gym. McGilvray recalls doing an inspection, walking along one of the central beams that bisect the structure. "I could picture it in my head," she said.

McGilvray designed the whole gym on paper, drawing from her extensive experience as a climber, and of course her development of TCA. If pressed, she can tell you the exact location of the 'zero point' in the gym. This point was the master XYZ coordinate, in relation to which everything else in the gym was situated and measured.

More gym construction photos

She provided the designs to an engineer, who drew up official plans and blueprints for her to use. Having become friends with the carpenter who had built TCA, and knowing he had the requisite expertise, McGilvray enlisted him for another contract. Family and friends pitched in to help -- a kind of climber barn-raising -- and the gym began to take form. Photos of the gym being built can be found along the staircase.

Eventually, McGilvray opened the Oasis doors for business in 1998.

"At the beginning," McGilvray related, "we had no holds in inventory. We would take down a route, and put up a new one using the same holds!"

The gym was not fully built all at once; it came in stages, as the business allowed. At the beginning, only the two towers existed. "There was no cave in the back, no big roof. That came later." It was a bit onerous, because it meant that the costs for constructing the gym continued for a full year after opening. [In fact, the upstairs changerooms and the secondary cave were built years after the opening.]

"We worked all the time," McGilvray said.

There were only two employees at the start, but McGilvray had tremendous fun nevertheless.

"We did everything. Cleaned, set routes, taught lessons, manned the desk. All of it."

What McGilvray liked most, was that she got to know all the climbers, and could literally see the development of a warm and welcoming community happening right before her eyes.

As explored elsewhere, the surrounding neighbourhood was vastly different at the time that the Rock Oasis opened. The area was gritty, dilapidated -- even sketchy at certain times of day.

"It was desolate. It's like night and day, comparing then to now," said McGilvray. "It's incredible."

There were only two places to eat, the Niagara, a greasy spoon on said street, and the Wheat Sheaf at King and Bathurst.

"Next door there used to be this place called Mr. Sandman; they made sand figurines. It was there when we opened, in the lower part of the unit to the south of us, and a printing company was in the upper level. It was all opened up to be one unit when Lamborghini moved in."

There were few condos then. I asked McGilvray about the change in the area. She shrugged.

"The city wants condos. They want to encourage downtown behaviour. Rush hour is no different now going in or out."

With the change in zoning permitting residential development, property values have become too high to support, due to the associated taxes. For the owners of the site, it was no longer worth carrying the property.

"The city kept raising taxes, until it became unrentable. The last owner -- it killed him to sell the building."


I mentioned the idea of Oasis as a gathering point for the community, and McGilvray smiled. It's a topic that energizes her. There have been several couples who met at the Rock Oasis, who eventually tied the knot.

"We used to have a hold that was heart-shaped. This couple who first met here… the girl asked to borrow the hold as a token of that, and that was what she used to propose. Of course we gave them the hold."

Smiles and laughter

There have been over 200 employees. "A lot of students, and experienced climbers too." Some of the long-term employees have been at Oasis for years, providing continuity and expertise in operating the gym, including Cort McElroy, the General Manager.

Cort McElroy accompanied the IMAX team to Mount Everest in 1996

Many, many climbers have passed through the doors. Some 50,000 people are in the Oasis database, and that doesn't include schoolgroups, who often pass through during the daytime.

The Story behind the Name
I inquired about how she originally came up with the Oasis name.

"Our name is The Rock Oasis" -- McGilvray gently corrected me -- "of course I can't stop customers from using other forms of the name, but I'm quite insistent on my staff using the full 3 words. All the words have significance to me."

She explained further:

"The name was a result of a brain storming session in the car, on the way to the airport (I can't even remember why we were going to the airport!) with myself, my husband Don, my sister Andy, and her former husband Mostafa.

Mostafa is Egyptian, and was suggesting Egyptian names such as 'Pyramid', 'Sphinx', etc., and Don followed that line of thinking to suggest 'Oasis'. I loved the idea of an oasis right away, and we added 'The Rock' to it to become The Rock Oasis (actually The Rock Oasis Inc.)."

So it's officially The Rock Oasis -- in case you were wondering. McGilvray's breakdown of the words and their significance:

"I think a 3 word name is good - 3 is a good 'balanced' number.

The - I want to imply it's 'the one', permanence, the best
Rock - implies rock climbing, as opposed to being a bar
OasisAs our old t-shirts said, it's an 'oasis in downtown Toronto'."

Finally, McGilvray concluded her explanation, and said: 

"My vision for the business is that we are a place for people to come and relax, have fun -- 'where everyone knows your name' -- be part of a family, be part of a community... and get away from the stress of life."

There have been challenges along the way. Her most embarrassing moment was the time there was a flood, and the gym bathrooms backed up from the city's ancient sewer system.

"We had to put porta potties outside! Then we had to replace all the flooring in the area, and have it meticulously cleaned up by an environmental company. Did you know those porta potties cost $100 a day?"

Asked about highlights in operating the gym, McGilvray paused, and then responded simply, "I'm happy about the welcoming atmosphere we've created for climbers."

In the intervening years, Rock Oasis has flourished. The nights are packed, the music rocks, and people generally have a great time there. Sporting two 60 foot towers -- the tallest indoor routes in the GTA -- and some 15,000 square feet of climbing surface, the gym has a steady population of climbers that waxes and wanes through the course of any given day.

The Transitional Gym - Rock Oasis on Carlaw
The story is far from over. Oasis is moving to a new location -- a transitional gym -- on Carlaw (a condo developer purchased the Front and Bathurst block, and is ousting the current tenants of the Doty Works).

McGilvray was sanguine about the impending demolition. It was tough for her to accept at first, but she's moved on. Literally.

Rock Oasis' new location on Carlaw.
No you can't climb the chimneys.

Initially, a sales office for the condominium development will be constructed at Front and Bathurst. McGilvray tried, unsuccessfully, to convince the developer to let the gym stay until they were ready to actually construct the condos (in around 2015). Unfortunately, the effort failed and Oasis was required to leave by July 1, 2011.

The circumstances galvanized her into action. Construction of what she calls the 'transitional gym' is basically complete -- a mammoth effort that took months of work -- and opening day is next week. It will be the third gym she's built (not counting a side operation in Ajax).

She's confident that most of the gym members will stick around to make the transition. "Some will leave, some will come along. I'm sure we'll see some new faces too."

She reiterated her feelings about the climbers at Oasis: "We have such a great community here."

Meanwhile, McGilvray is continuing to draft plans for a 'big, beautiful new gym', a project that will take about two years due to the City's permit process. The plans include over 100 routes (most 60 feet tall), tons of bouldering, and a large change room with plenty of lockers. More than that, she wouldn't divulge.

"It's going to be good," she promised.

And so it goes. That's the story of The Rock Oasis -- at Front and Bathurst.

Read the next section:

You're reading: Farewell to Rock Oasis, the secret history of my home climbing gym.   

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