Archive | small business

Gaining a Foothold in the RAD

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Rendering of Smoky Mountain Adventure Center by Glazer Architecture

Twenty-one years after opening Climbmax one of the nation’s first indoor rock climbing gyms in downtown Asheville, Stuart Cowles is on the sharp end again.

In the early 1990’s Cowles left his job as a manager and designer at a climbing gear enterprise in Conway, NH with the goal of opening a climbing gym.

“That was the motivating factor to move to Asheville. I wanted a small city with a solid climbing community that might be able to support it,” he says. Since then, he’s roped in a loyal following and introduced hundreds of folks to the edgy sport.

Fast forward two decades and construction is underway on the Smoky Mountain Adventure Center in the River Arts District (RAD) that will open its doors later this spring or summer. On a small wedge of land on Amboy Road nestled between Carrier Park and the French Broad River Park, the enterprise will feature a state of the art climbing gym, a yoga studio, a beer tap, as well as bike, stand up paddle board and other gear rentals. The outdoor adventure facility was designed by the local architectural firm Glazer Architecture.

Cowles, however, isn’t jumping on the RAD bandwagon. In fact, the entrepreneur took the lead  of the Mountain Sports Festival as the first executive director over a decade ago. While it’s original venue was downtown, “the goal was always to move the festival to the river,” says Cowles.

In 1994, when Climbmax opened on Wall Street, downtown was just on the verge of its renaissance, much like the river district is today. “I decided I wanted to be in the heart of downtown. I looked at opening along the river 22 years ago — at the time it just wasn’t the right place,” he recalls.

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

Framing of the SMAC commenced on February 11, 2015

But as the rejuvenation of the river district started to turn the bend, Cowles launched a search for another indoor rock gym venue in the RAD. The crux, he says, was finding a workable building for a climbing gym. With assistance from a Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority grant, Cowles decided to take the leap and design and build a new facility in the RAD. While he’ll continue to operate Climbmax, he’s hoping to tie into the growing demand for recreation along the French Broad.

“It’s really a perfect location since the river brings so many active people together,” says Cowles who intends to create a one stop destination for outdoor adventure. “We hope to be an anchor point, engage active people and keep them within the city limits.”

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Fish Oar Float

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park

Jason Brownlee at work in the French Broad Riverworks shop within Carrier Park (photo courtesy of French Broad Boatworks)

I recently caught up with Jason Brownlee, the co-owner of the French Broad Boatworks and Asheville native to chat about their handcrafted riverboats and upcoming river tours.

He and his partner William Evert, both avid anglers, skilled carpenters, furniture makers and homebuilders, joined forces five years ago to begin crafting high-end boats for fishermen. But not just any fishing boat, their fleet of hand crafted, oar powered river dories are top-of-the-line and a nod to the traditional ocean vessel that’s known for its seaworthiness and simplicity.

For land lubbers whose river craft knowledge may be limited to tubes and canoes, Brownlee explains that a river dory is kin to ocean fishing crafts designed with a wide flat bottom, pointy prow and stern, and high sides to ride safely on top of the current.

While the pair dabbled for several years on a design, their classic look they’ve adopted has been reengineered with an ultra modern light wood frame that is sheathed and protected by high tech material. However, the interior is where their woodworking skills really shine and gives the boats a nostalgic look they’d like to preserve.

But Brownlee isn’t just a dory enthusiast, he’s also a river advocate; the thirty-seven year old has seen the river corridor at its best and worst.

“The river district used to be an absolute wreck,” remembers Brownlee. But when the restaurants and bars started to make headway on the river, he knew the tides had shifted and wanted to get more involved with its revitalization. “We’re trying to be part of the experience,” he adds.

Brownlee, of course, is overjoyed at the rebirth of the river district and use of the river; he’d just like to give people the opportunity to glide downstream in high style.

Naturally, dories are ideal for anglers to cast on two feet, but its buoyancy makes for a smooth ride too and an ideal watercraft for birding, hauling camping gear, or just a gentle sunset cruise. So this spring, the pair is launching the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour to lure non-anglers to the experience of floating in a craft boat. The roughly one and a half hour tour will cast off from their workshop within Carrier Park to the Smoky Park Supper Club.

 “We really want folks to experience a drift boat,” says Brownlee. “It’s the only way to go down the river.”

Visit their website for more information about the Asheville Wooden Boat Tour launching this coming spring. www.frenchbroadboatworks.com

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