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State Climb morphs to pull through pandemic
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State Climb morphs to pull through pandemic

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Like any business striving to survive the current economy, State Climb is reinventing itself while maintaining its original vision as a gathering place for local youth and families as other such places fall to the wayside.

Following months of work and preparation, the climbing gym opened Jan. 31 in the stage and backstage area of the historic State Theatre on Main Street, its entrance located around back at 115 E. Locust St. in downtown Culpeper. Gym owner Dos Allen, a 2006 graduate of Rappahannock High School, had high hopes and his first month open was stellar.

“February was awesome, it exceeded my expectations,” he said in a visit last week. “That gave me a lot of confidence that it does work for the community, the community does respond, they do like it. It gives me the motivation to stick it out even when things look real bleak.”

March ushered in bleak times with the sudden closure of gyms, entertainment businesses and other stores due to the pandemic and associated state-mandated directives and closures to contain the spread. State Climb was closed for 72 days.

It’s been a slow climb back, but Allen is hopeful. He wants the community to know they are back open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and things have changed to create a safe environment and a healthy alternative to couch surfing.

“The focus is very much try and be helpful for the community in this crazy time, to be able to provide a whole bunch of services that are literally dying all around us,” he said.

Both the roller skating rink and bowling alley closed within the last month or so, and the movie theater across the street is getting ready to close again. With COVID-19 still present, people are still not widely congregating in such indoor recreational settings.

That’s why Allen is adapting. Only 10 people at a time are allowed in the gym that has a normal capacity of 100 people. Per state directives, “When you’re exercising and not wearing a mask we have to keep 10 feet apart from each other so with the space being small and most of the people being there together, it’s easy to hold it to 10,” Allen said.

He especially wants to reach distance learning students and homeschoolers and has added a new reasonably priced program designed to be a physical education substitute. At noon on Thursdays, parents can drop off their children aged 5-12 for two hours of climbing, learning, exercise, games, guided activities and socialization. A syllabus and information is at https://stateclimb.com/fallprograms.

Last Thursday, a group of five local kids were on site having a blast being active. Fourth graders Abby Thomas and Mikaela Dennis talked about their experience of getting out of the house for some climbing and what it’s been like not being in school five days a week.

Abby misses the teacher’s rewards.

“If we were good, we got to have ice cream floats for a whole week at the end of the day. It’s more fun at school,” said the 9-year-old all-virtual student of Yowell Elementary.

Abby said she does a lot of school work at home as well as arts and crafts and walking to the playground with friends. She listens to pop music to calm down: “When I don’t want to do work, it’s so tiring! We have a schedule where we do three things then a break.”

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Climbing at State Climb has been a nice break, and it’s fun playing games like ping pong, corn hole and cards, the girl said. The kids are also learning rope tying and safety skills. Abby said one thing she doesn’t miss about school is all the screaming during tests.

Mikaela Dennis spends some of her school days with her friend Abby at her house in town where there’s internet and two days in class at Pearl Sample Elementary. Dennis has been going to State Climb since schools closed in March. Her dad is cross country coach and teacher at the local high school and she’s an avid Blue Devil.

“I love climbing,” said the 10-year-old. “The thrilling parts like when you jump down. I always get scared when I jump down, I look down, it’s so high!”

Mikaela, through giggles, launched into a story about the locked utility box on the wall being filled with cheese balls and how they all fell on the floor when she opened it and it scared her to death.

Allen walked up as she demonstrated the joke again, a fresh stock of the orange globes spilling out and racing across the floor, “Free cheese balls in a lock box, that’s why it’s so exciting,” he said. “The fun just doesn’t end. There’s generally something like that going on.”

Allen brings a spirit of fun and youthfulness to the gym, where on a recent day Kid Bop was blaring from the sound system.

“Going to school has been amazing, my teacher is phenomenal,” Mikaela said. “At home it’s just rough not having someone guide me.” She bragged in 50 years when her kids ask her about living through the pandemic she won’t have to look in any history books: “We couldn’t touch one another and had to miss out on things like carnivals and fairs and when everyone ran out of toilet paper that was the worst.”

Local mom Marietta Allman, of Ruckersville, has been bringing her three sons to the Thursday program for about a month. She gave it a good review.

“The boys have really enjoyed it. They make it a lot of fun, they teach them basic skills and about teamwork,” she said. “We like that they keep the classes small so the kids get a lot of individual attention … for the quality of time the children spend here it’s very much worth it.”

Allen hopes to expand the kids PE program as demand warrants.

He also recently partnered with Pranapiloga to offer five yoga classes for five weeks on the stage—at a completely separate and quiet time. The downturn closed the Madison Road physical yoga studio and classes had shifted outdoors. The skylights high above the State Climb stage open to let in sun and wind and sessions are limited to 10 with proper spacing.

“This is absolutely not a normal commercial gym business plan,” Allen said. “Kind of the silver lining of the situation is we can entirely dedicate the space to groups that are much smaller.”

The business owner, who also is co-owner of the 1930s theater, is optimistic things will come back. Allen never imagined the shutdown would last so long. A federal grant in the spring helped him retain his four employees for a while, but by the time the money arrived he was already in the red for payroll and paying it out of pocket. As for the town and county’s Culpeper CARES business grants, State Climb was disqualified because it hadn’t been open long enough.

Allen’s regular customers have been propping the business since it reopened after its multi-month closure.

“We don’t have any problem with people coming here, having a great time and then coming back, our retention is very good,” he said. “We have a problem with nobody knows we’re here and we’re struggling with visibility. It’s coming, it’s just slow, but it’s going to work.”

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