February 8, 2016|By Erika McGilley| Community Development

When I was approached with a business opportunity to finance the creation of a gravity-riding bike park in western North Carolina, my first question was, “What the heck is gravity riding?” Which was quickly followed by, “What does it have to do with economic vitality in Madison County, North Carolina?” I soon learned that gravity riding describes the sport of racing down steep, rough terrain full of jumps, drops and rocks on a souped-up mountain bike equipped with serious tires and suspension. I also found out that it presented a unique opportunity to showcase the area’s natural resources while positively impacting the local economy, and it immediately appealed to me as a project to support.

Erika Blog 1Jumps and rough, natural terrain make for excellent gravity riding at Bailey Mountain Bike Park. Photo courtesy Jay Schultz/GoJaMMedia.

Bailey Mountain Bike Park is the brainchild of Guy and Jennifer Miller, who conceived of the idea while traveling with their son Zachary, a gravity racer, to races all over the world. The biggest challenge was finding the capital to turn their dream of opening their own bike park into a reality. Traditional financing was not an option, and that is where The Conservation Fund’s Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) came in. The NCIF is a business loan fund that provides debt financing to small and emerging businesses. We have a particular focus on entrepreneurs and enterprises that are good stewards of natural resources.

Erika Blog 3Rider Zach Miller on Salvador’s Slalom trail at Bailey Mountain Bike Park. Photo courtesy Jennifer Miller.

From NCIF’s standpoint, Bailey Mountain Bike Park has it all. It harnesses gravity to power high enjoyment/low-impact recreation on 140 forested acres. Bailey Mountain is also an economic engine that creates jobs and generates customers for other local businesses. According to the study “Bikes in Beds” by Don Kostelec, the average stay for a bike tourist is 3.7 nights vs. 2.5 nights for the typical tourist. Studies show that work on greenways and bicycle facilities creates the most jobs—17 jobs per $1 million invested, generating 4.5 more jobs than the next most productive categories. This compelling convergence of economic and conservation benefits earned NCIF’s support, but to pull it off we needed financial partners. 

We sought out collaborative sources for funding and community support that could be creative and that shared our vision. The resulting alliance between NCIF, The Rural Center’s Small Business Credit Initiative, The Support Center and Mountain BizWorks provided the Millers with the financing they needed to start work on the park.

Securing the perfect site was a challenge, but they were able to find a tract of land that had both the right geographic features (ie, a 1,000 foot drop, access to highways, beautiful vistas) and was also close enough to amenities that attract local, regional and global mountain biking enthusiasts. This ideal site was actually a failed housing development in the town of Marshall, North Carolina, which has now been reclaimed and repurposed by the Bailey Mountain Bike Park. It is located approximately 20 minutes from Asheville, North Carolina, a town already considered a magnet for those seeking adventure-tourism.  

Erika Blog 4The view from the trails at Bailey Mountain Bike Park. Photo courtesy Jennifer Miller.

After an incredible amount of hard work by the Millers’ team of professionals and volunteers, Bailey Mountain Bike Park opened for business in July 2015 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The Park offers exhilarating riding year round on six trails, with the goal of eventually having 20 or more trails. Bailey Mountain has already built up a customer base of riders from as far away as Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Virginia, as well as the “locals” from North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

The Millers will fulfill their original vision with the construction of campsites, a base lodge with showers, and ultimately, cabins that will be completed in 2016. Most riders would love to stay at the park, but for now it has been a boon for area campgrounds, cabins and other vacation rentals. 

I am so grateful to have played a role in helping the Millers bring their dream to life, one that has such positive impact for the larger community. This is entrepreneurial conservation at its best, and something I am proud to say The Conservation Fund does so well.