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Climbing gym will take Sarasota vertical in 2025

Project 24 Climbing is expected to break ground in August and open in spring 2025, becoming Sarasota's only climbing gym.

A rendering shows the interior layout of Project 24 Climbing. Designs are currently being finalized.
A rendering shows the interior layout of Project 24 Climbing. Designs are currently being finalized.
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Thanks to a group of local entrepreneurs, by early 2025, a vacant lot off Fruitville Road east of I-75 will take Sarasota’s sports community to new heights. 

The property is the future site of Project 24 Climbing — set to open as Sarasota’s only climbing gym between February and April 2025.

The 19,000-square-foot facility, estimated to cost over $6 million, will feature an inclusive approach to climbing with a top rope area, bouldering walls and a slate of features including yoga rooms and an infrared sauna.

Because the prospect of climbing might sound daunting to some Sarasota residents, the founders of the gym said they have taken the experience levels of the local community into consideration. 

When the gym opens, the layout of its interchangeable walls will skew just a little easier than average, giving it the opportunity to evolve with the public’s skills. 

It's part of the facility's broad goal of inclusivity. 

“If you can climb a ladder, there’s going to be a route that you can climb there, and however good you are, there's going to be something challenging,” said Aaron Rutsky, one of the gym’s co-founders.

Strong foothold

Though climbing will be a new experience for many, for a decade it's been a passion of Sarasota's Austin Venhaus, a 2019 graduate of New College of Florida who started the project.

Venhaus hails from Seattle where the first climbing gym in America, Vertical World, opened in 1987 and described climbing as something that was "always around" during his childhood, whether at birthday parties or other occasions.

When he started attending a climbing gym as a college student, while spending time at home for winter break, he ended up returning each day to climb and socialize with the other climbers.

Austin Venhaus
Photo by Ian Swaby

“Climbing is definitely one of those things that you can do regardless of your fitness level or any sort of impairments,” Venhaus said. "As you improve your fitness, or even as you work on your technique, you can see that improvement at the climbing gym. And it really is a full-body workout. If you're doing a prolonged route, like on one of our taller rope walls, your heart will be racing, so you get a little bit of cardio in there too."

It was in 2019 that he arrived at the decision to found Project 24 Climbing. 

While training for a triathlon with a group of friends, the group had to travel twice a week to Vertical Ventures in St. Pete, so he proposed the idea of a gym over dinner. 

But he wasn’t the only one drawn to the idea. 

Aaron Rutsky and his wife, Andrea Rutsky, of Lakewood Ranch, had only been pursuing indoor climbing for a short time, when they found out about Venhaus’ project online and became interested. 

Andrea had been climbing for about two months, while Aaron had been climbing for a few weeks. 

“It's good mentally, it's good physically. And it's good socially. It's everything in one,” Aaron said.

They now serve as co-founders and as the project's primary investors.

Drawing from his experience starting numerous companies, Aaron undertook an analysis of Venhaus’ plans. 

At that point, those plans involved a lower-budget gym focused entirely on bouldering, an activity where climbers forego ropes to scale a shorter wall. Bouldering is typically more youth-oriented. 

Aaron decided that the demographics of Sarasota demanded an all-encompassing facility, complete with rope features. 

When they couldn't find a building tall enough, the project’s developer, Sarasota's Jeff Manning, of Manquero Group LLC, steered them to the empty lot. 

Hands-on research

For research, Aaron and Andrea visited about 50 climbing gyms to scale their walls and speak with management. 

“We learned a lot in a hurry about what to do, what not to do,” Aaron said. “Definitely, probably more what not to do. We've really focused, and we're spending a lot of money on making this gym as safe as possible, because climbing is inherently dangerous.”

He said some mistakes at other facilities included lights that shine directly into climbers' eyes, gaps between safety mats and walls, and bouldering setups that require maneuvers that are too complicated at too great a height.

They wanted to go the extra distance with safety.

As a result, the auto belay area, which allows climbers to ascend a route with a rope but without a human partner, will feature a new flooring by Climbmat Flooring, safety tested for falls at 50 feet. 

If a climber falls into the flooring from a height of 12 feet or more, it collapses into a crumple zone.

The design for the project is being finalized, with groundbreaking estimated for August. 

“This connects in to Waterside and Lakewood Ranch,” Manning said. “Basically, all the community’s going to get to do something. Especially in a business park like this, it’s an awesome use for that.”

“I want it to become the social hub of Sarasota, the demographic that doesn't want to be in Sarasota, but feel like 'Oh, it's an older person's community," Aaron Rutsky said. "I want this to be one thing to help draw that age group back in there.”

Full-spectrum sport

The 6,200 square feet of top rope will feature auto belays, a top rope that allows climbers to clip in and another that allows a conventional tie-in, as well as lead climbing for two individuals.

The 7,600 square feet of bouldering walls, which will feature between 150 to 180 problems at one time, will also include a cave, an arch shape and a training area.

“From an activity standpoint, (climbing) is very engaging both physically and mentally, because the problems for boulderers are called problems, so you get to solve them,” Venhaus said.

Climbing routes will rotate every six to eight weeks.

Serving as the route setter and coach will be Cole Seaton, whom Aaron Rutsky describes as "a big outdoor climber" who has "done everything in the industry."

A rendering shows the interior layout of Project 24 Climbing. Designs are currently being finalized.

The gym plans to offer programs including instruction, teams for high school youth, adaptive climbing programs, camps and birthday parties. There will be annual and weekly memberships and day passes. 

Of particular importance to its mission is the adaptive climbing, which matches the climbing experience to the requirements of an individual with physical limitations or with special needs, whether the solution is a climbing assistant or a different type of harness. 

Rutsky said the gym will be the first in the country with a podcasting room. It will also offer a fitness room, two yoga and party rooms, an infrared sauna, a store and a co-working space with cubicles for visitors working remotely, as well as a wheelchair lift to the second floor.

“They could take a yoga class, take a shower, go work for a few hours, take a climb, go back to work," Rutsky said. "Just spend your whole day here."

Aaron and Andrea Rutsky, Jeff Manning and Austin Venhaus
Photo by Ian Swaby



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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