College Park community reassured after battle to save rock climbing wall

The rock climbing wall at Tracey Wyatt Rec Center in College Park is saved for now, following a two month battle over its possible removal. (DorMiya Vance/WABE).

Advocates are reaching new heights of relief as a rock climbing wall in College Park appears to be saved. The installation has been a hot-button issue in the city council since April. 

In 2021, the city of College Park opened the rock climbing wall at Tracey Wyatt Rec Center. Supporters cheered at the ribbon-cutting event. 

Black professional rock climber Kai Lightner, who spent some time in College Park as a kid,  raised over $100,000 for the wall and later donated it to the city to introduce the sport to the community’s young people. 

“I feel like navigating the sport felt like I had a lot of chance encounters to help me get to where I am,” Lightner said.

Lightner has gained accolades as a climber, including 12 national titles and several youth world championship medals. 

The rock climbing wall project was a first for Lightner’s nonprofit, Climbing For Change. His goal was to increase access to rock climbing for Black youth. 

“I didn’t want the next person who came in the sport who looked like me to get to where I was or where I am by chance,” Lightner said.

Nearly 27% of College Park’s population is under 18 years old, and the majority of them are Black, according to the U.S. Census. 

Some in the community welcomed the installation. But then, earlier this year, Lightner received an email saying it would be removed. 

In a May meeting, Councilwoman Tracie Arnold claimed there were complaints from staff about the climbing wall’s safety and utilization. 

The city’s director of recreation and cultural arts, Michelle Johnson, addressed some of the allegations.

“I’m not aware that there’s been any safety issues. There’s not been anything brought to the staff that I’m aware of. So, if there is, it has not been brought to us,” Johnson said in a May council meeting.

The council voted to allocate $60,000 to the city manager to investigate the rock climbing wall. However, the discussion around the installation did not stop with the vote.

Tensions around a different issue in a later meeting caused some council members to change their stance on the wall. The council chose to vote again on the matter. They decided instead to put the remainder of the funds from the investigation into promoting the wall. 

Arnold was the only member to vote against that measure. She said she believes that constituents in her ward, where the wall is located, want different resources. 

“My residents have made it clear that they’re not going to use it no matter how much you decide to promote it, market it. That’s not what they want. They want jobs,” Arnold said in the meeting. 

Other members, like Councilman Roderick Gay, say the rock climbing wall became a bigger issue than necessary because of how the council handled it. 

“The wall of and in itself is not that high of a priority,” Gay said. “What this has become is the issue of the principle of why the wall needs to be taken down. In other words, from a programming point of view, it’s not that big of a deal.”

However, the council’s decision to promote the wall instead of studying it or removing it relieved parents like Mose James IV. His son uses it.

“I can’t help but feel a sense of pride as to what we collectively were able to accomplish. On the reverse side of that, I also just feel silly because … this wall should have never been an issue,” James said. 

If the wall came down, he’d have to go to Alpharetta for his son to experience rock climbing, he said.

“This is a free opportunity for kids, and you just don’t have those type of opportunities in this area to try a new sport,” he said. “Even if I were to drive to Alpharetta for a summer camp. Those summer camps – they’re $450 to $500 a week.”

For Lightner, he says he’s learning the logistics of these types of projects, but, speaking before the council’s vote to promote the wall, he said he felt let down.

“For it to be the administration where all of this starts to fall apart, it feels like disheartening,” Lightner said. “Not everyone is going to be LeBron James or Serena Williams. I feel like we have to be breaking down those barriers and exposing people to more opportunities if we want to see more potential in the next generation.”

The rock climbing wall has been closed for maintenance since January. The city says it could reopen for the summer.