Mountain bike paths to prosperity

Last July, a few friends and I made the pilgrimage to the premiere mountain biking destination of the east – Kingdom Trails.

Located in East Burke, Vt., KT has 100-plus miles of top-notch, maintained singletrack mountain bike trails. Singletrack trails are about two, two-and-a-half-feet wide – just wide enough for riders to progress single file.

The guys at Kingdom Trails in Vermont

The trails were amazing – fast, flowy, immaculately maintained – just plain beautiful. But as a business reporter, I was more amazed and impressed by the economics of what I was seeing in tiny East Burke.

The town isn’t big. It’s got a small downtown with a general store and a few restaurants. There’s a small ski hill in town, too. And it’s not close to any big communities. It seems like it’s mostly farmlands around the areas – I’m guessing dairy.

But during the non-winter months, East Burke is mountain-bike central. Landowners banded together to make this trail system work. Former farmhouses on the trail network are now bed and breakfasts. Some farms offer parking lots (with a small fee for parking) to access the trails at various points.

Downtown, a bike shop was doing brisk business in parts, equipment, shirts, etc. You had to pay a fee to ride the trails for the weekend – which goes to maintenance.

There were bikers everywhere – riding up and down the streets, from their B&Bs to the bar, from the bar back. I saw cars with plates from Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Quebec, Connecticut, Ontario – just to name a few.

I, personally, dropped about $150 on that trip, and I was being thrifty. Camping fees, food, trail fees, a few parts for my bike – it all added up. But it was an awesome experience.

Somehow, in the past, this entire community banded together with a goal of building these trails, embracing a niche of tourism, and cobbling together an economy.

They’re doing something similar just south in Vermont, around some old quarries, at a spot called Millstone.

Big-head Me and my buds at Millstone.

Boy, I thought as I looked at what was happening in East Burke, this would be a tough go in Maine.

Maine is heavily dependent on tourism, but as a sector, it’s often disdained. These aren’t real jobs, people say. Or they generally are unhappy with the flood of tourists from the south.

And, lest we forget, change is tough.

I point to Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal, which, in the last decade, purposefully targeted mountain bikers by putting in singletrack across the road from the mountain (a hill, really). Park usership skyrocketed. The place is PACKED every summer with mountain bikers, and a 12-hour mountain bike race, The Bradbury 12, is hugely successful each year.

Yet over the last year or so, as new trails were planned to connect Bradbury to Pineland in New Gloucester, a number of local residents spoke out against the plan, unhappy about the “gd” mountain bikers. It seems the bikers are to blame for the diminishing deer herds …. Really?

But I was heartened when I saw this article from The Bethel Citizen.

It seems there’s interest in boosting tourism to the already tourist-dependent area (ever hear of Sunday River?), and leaders are looking to build mountain bike trails in their 2,400-acre Bingham land trust property. The Bethel Conservation Commission hosted the executive director of – where else? – Kingdom Trails, according to the article, for a public workshop.

According to the director, Tim Tierney, about 4,000 people visited the trails in 2004. In the latest year, it was 50,000.

This is from The Citizen:

While the trails organization is nonprofit, it has helped support and even create local businesses, Tierney said.

In this poor economy, he said, “we know we have saved businesses.”

He said inns, home rentals and other businesses have benefited.

“People are building second homes to be near the trails,” said Tierney. The area has also become a draw for “mountain bike weddings,” he said.

The KT network relies on the participation of 55 private landowners and a cooperative agreement with the adjacent Burke Mountain Ski Resort.

It’s really exciting as both a mountain biker and as someone who’s enthusiastic about Maine’s economy to see a town taking a serious look at this. On the email list of the mountain bike group I belong to (Rage on Portland), a number of my fellow bikers talked about other such trail efforts going on at Sugarloaf and at Maine Huts and Trails. I know Shawnee Peak in Bridgton is putting in some singletrack, too.

Times have changed here in Maine. The economies have shifted. Demographics are shifting. We need to look at ways to carve out economies, carve out livings by taking advantage of things that can’t be moved – like our quality of place.