Regional effort seeks economic ‘lift’ from mountain biking

NH, Maine, Vermont, Quebec organizations launch joint trail initiative
Photo by Ryan Thibault

Seven organizations in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Canada have launched an effort to promote mountain biking and boost the area’s economy.

The effort is called Borderlands, and the goal is “to lift up the region as a mountain-bike destination,” said Maura Adams, program director for the Northern Forest Center, which is coordinating the effort.

The strategy is to make seven mountain bike areas – with a total of about 220 miles of trails – more prominent by putting them under a Borderlands marketing umbrella.

Think a mountain-bike smorgasbord:

  • Coos Cycling Club, Gorham, NH.
  • Mahoosuc Pathways, Bethel, Maine.
  • Kingdom Trails, East Burke, Vt.
  • Franconia Area Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, Franconia, NH.
  • Parker Mountain Trails in Littleton, NH.
  • Circuits Frontières in East Hereford, Que.
  • Craftsbury Outdoor Center, Craftsbury, Vt.

One of the seven, Kingdom Trails, was established in 1994 and is already well known to mountain bikers.

Last year, its trails were used by 140,000 mountain bikers, cross-country skiers and hikers. The majority were mountain bikers and the number of visitors is up from 94,000 in 2016, said Lilias Ide, an official with the non-profit organization. About 75 percent of the visitors were from outside Vermont.

Borderlands hopes to widen the geographic horizon of mountain bikers.

“There are a lot of people who just know about Kingdom Trails,” said Adams. “They will go there and have a great time, but not know that within a couple of hours are some really excellent riding destinations.”

Senate Bill 234

One tactic will involve encouraging mountain bikers to visit all seven riding areas this year, submit photographic proof at each location and receive a “Tour de Borderlands 2019 Finisher” patch.

But Borderlands calls for more than promotions: It requires each area to standardize trail markings and maps as well as have well-designed trails built with erosion control and sustainability in mind.

And there will be an increased emphasis on beginner and intermediate trails.

The seven groups see Borderlands as having the potential to attract more tourists, encourage locals to take up the sport and nurture local businesses to serve them.

There’s also a hope that a vibrant mountain-biking and outdoors community will attract young people to a state that needs more workers.

That aligns with an issue being pursued by Taylor Caswell, commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Business and Economic Affairs.

He’s urging the Legislature to approve Senate Bill 234, which would authorize his department to seek federal funds to hire a director of Outdoor Recreation Industry Development. One goal is to promote outdoor recreation as part of “strategic marketing for a younger workforce.”

The idea that mountain-biking can be a huge boost to the economy partly comes from Kingdom Trails. A 2016 study estimated out-of-state visitors spent almost $8 million a year at Kingdom Trails. That figure has not been updated but should have increased proportionally, Ide said.

Economic boost

There’s already some evidence that stand-alone trail networks other than Kingdom Trails can attract visitors. One of the seven areas is Parker Mountain Trails in Littleton. Dave Harkless, owner of Littleton Bike & Fitness, said the five-year-old system is already attracting tourists who see it on mountain-biking apps.

“I see consistently, day in and day out, people stopping in asking for maps,” he said.

The ideal outcome for Borderlands would be boosting local economies and providing more recreational opportunities for everyone in a thoughtful and balanced way that won’t overwhelm the ecology or towns, said Kirsten Scobie, director of  the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, which is helping with funding.

Overwhelming the locals on weekends is an issue at Kingdom Trails. Its website asks bikers not to change clothes in their cars because “we have received numerous complaints from locals about seeing half-naked bikers. Please use our restroom facility.” Two members of the Burke Selectboard did not return telephone calls.

So far, Borderlands has received about $150,000 from public and private sources, said Adams. In addition to Tillotson, there were contributions from Davis Conservation Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development and a donor who wished to remain anonymous.

The Borderlands collaboration has great potential, said Chris Nicodemus, president of the Franconia Area Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association, one of the seven groups.

Nicodemus said there will be access to badly needed funds and a chance for the groups to share ideas, enthusiasm and expertise.

In addition, he said, Borderlands could highlight the North Country as a great place to live and enjoy an active lifestyle while showing mountain biking is “a wonderful way to enjoy traveling through the countryside.”

Eventually there may also be other groups joining Borderlands. For example, the newly formed Bethlehem Trails Association is building a network of trails to start and end in the town of 2,500 near Littleton.

“Joining Borderlands … is a goal we’re moving towards,” said Jim McCann, who heads the group.

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