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Bike trails bring boon to businesses

The red earth of the mountain bike trails at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has surrounding businesses seeing more green in their tills and black on their balance sheets.

Zach Kasper (left) talks to Travis Decent as he works on his bike at a bike tuneup station at the Pennington access in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. (Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch)
Zach Kasper (left) talks to Travis Decent as he works on his bike at a bike tuneup station at the Pennington access in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. (Kelly Humphrey/Brainerd Dispatch)

The red earth of the mountain bike trails at the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area has surrounding businesses seeing more green in their tills and black on their balance sheets.

The 25 miles of mountain bike trails crisscross the recreation area, abandoned more than 30 years ago by mining companies. The trails follow the contours of the rugged terrain, as well as some of the old mining paths.

If it wasn't for the 2011 grand opening of the trails, Jenny Smith, owner of Cycle Path and Paddle in nearby Crosby, might be out of business. She opened the recreation equipment shop in 2005 but because of the Great Recession, was considering shutting down in 2009. But she had been working with the Minnesota Department of Recreation on the trail proposal, so she knew a boost was coming after the trails were built in 2010.

"I thought, OK, I'm going to hang in there a couple more years and see what happens," Smith said. "We have seen growth every year since the trails opened."

From 2012-2014, the growth was gradual, but this past year, "it has just taken off, it's been amazing."

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“Businesses are growing, we have new businesses coming in, tourism is up. It’s a really exciting time to live in the Cuyuna lakes region and it’s only going to get better.”- Jessica Holmvig, Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce executive director

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Smith's shop sells, rents and services a wide variety of recreation equipment, including mountain and road bikes, kayaks, standup paddleboards, canoes and boats. She also offers transportation to the nearby mine pits.

In the past, business would slow down on Mondays and Tuesdays following the weekends, Smith said. But this year, "every day we are having large numbers of people come in, a lot of rentals."

Because of the trail's increasing popularity, Smith has been selling more bikes than she had in the past, and fat tire bikes have "become extremely popular." It's not all bikes, though, as increased traffic overall has brought an increase in kayak, canoe and standup paddleboard rentals.

The Minnesota Mountain Bike Race this year brought one of its series races to the Cuyuna lakes for the first time this June. The Cuyuna Lakes Crusher, from June 27-28, featured riders in multiple classes participating in time trial and short track events, as well as a post-race happy hour.

Event weekends bring dedicated racers with their own bikes and equipment, Smith said. On those weekends, she sees an increase in sales of bike tubes, tires, derailleur hangers and other parts. Racers bring their families with them, who end up renting other equipment like road bikes, kayaks and standup paddleboards.

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"We see that crossover with those big groups coming in as well," Smith said.

Smith has had to adapt her business to meet different, increased demands, but is limited somewhat by the physical space available. She used to carry more road bikes prior to the trails opening, now, 80 percent of her bike rentals are mountain bike and fat tire bike rentals, she said.

"That is definitely our bread and butter right now," Smith said.

To make sure incoming bikers know about her business, Smith advertises in publications like "Minnesota Monthly" and "Explore Minnesota Tourism." But, at this point, the best advertising Smith gets is via word of mouth. People who came up for a day right after the trails opened now stay for an entire weekend.

"We get huge numbers coming down from Canada, Manitoba, Winnipeg-area, Thunder Bay," Smith said.

Smith also sees a fair amount of business from families of skaters in the Heartland Hockey Camp in Deerwood. Families drop their kids off at hockey camp and "then they are coming over here to rent the mountain bikes or the kayaks and the standup paddleboards." Area resorts also bring groups and promote the trails to guests.

So far, Smith has rented equipment to everyone "from Maine to California," she said. The map hanging in the store "is fairly well-covered, including Alaska and Hawaii."

Smith plans to stay in the loop regarding developments with the mountain bike trails moving forward, mostly by staying in touch with area legislators and the DNR and serving on a statewide DNR committee.

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"I will definitely remain involved with promoting not just the biking in the area, but the whole outdoor adventure package," Smith said. "There are so many opportunities for things to do here."

Cycle Path and Paddle isn't the only area business benefiting from the mountain bike trails; local lodgers are seeing an increase in customers rolling into their parking lots with bikes strapped to car racks.

Dan Brown, owner of Country Inn in Deerwood, said his hotel is full every weekend in the summer without the mountain bike trails. But the noticeable impact comes early in the season in April and May and late in the season in September and October.

The Country Inn is a member of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, Brown said, which means other IMBA members get a discount when they stay at his hotel. He's also been the treasurer of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew for four years, and rides regularly as well.

An 'aha' moment

Many of the incoming mountain bikers prefer to camp at the recreation area instead of getting a hotel room. This has created a demand on the available sites and spurred the idea for True North Basecamp, opening in September.

The campsite is the brainchild of Dan Jurek and Jeff Bajek, two Twin Cities residents who came to ride the trails with their sons in September of 2013. They set up camp and rain came through wreaking havoc on their campsite.

"That really was the 'aha' moment," Jurek said. "Realizing there was really nowhere else nearby to stay."

Jurek and Brown did their homework when it came to researching the need for lodging in the area, Jurek said. The site will fill the current demand and be able to grow as the trails become more popular.

When they got home, they started looking at nearby land to open a private campsite. Working with local real estate agent Joel Hartman, as well as the mountain bike crew, they were able to find a parcel of land adjacent to the trails. The land is connected to the trail system, as well as being close to downtown Crosby.

"We will offer bike-in and bike-out access right to the trails," Jurek said. "Guests will be able to walk or bike into town for eating and shopping."

What sets True North Basecamp apart from existing campsites is the ability to make online reservations, Jurek said. Guests coming from places like Nebraska, Canada and Colorado like the security of knowing they have a place to stay when they get to the trails.

"No one really wants to take a chance of going up to Cuyuna and not having a place to stay," Jurek said.

The campsites will also boast Wi-Fi access, as well as six camping cabins with heat and air conditioning and USB charging ports for electronic devices, Jurek said.

"We really want to accommodate people that want to get away from it all," Jurek said. "But still have enough technology and access to technology that they still can keep connected to work and life."

True North Basecamp won't just be for mountain bikers, Jurek said. Its location also makes it prime lodging for kayakers and standup paddleboarders.

"I almost feel there's greater opportunity there than there is in mountain biking," Jurek said. "Because the waterways there are just so gorgeous, so clear."

Jurek said he isn't concerned about opening the site in September near the end of the peak season, as fat tire biking and winter biking are "one of the fastest growing segments of biking." They've also got partnerships with Twin Cities-based bike organizations like Framed Bike Crew, 45NRTH apparel and Twin Six apparel to hold winter events at the trails.

"We're really excited about the potential of the winter months," Jurek said.

Yurts at Yawkey

The recreation area is also home to a DNR pilot program, offering campers to stay in structures with a long, rich history: yurts. Yurt lodging is also available at Afton State Park and Glendalough State Park.

A traditional yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt, and were popular dwellings for nomads in central Asia, according to yurtinfo.org. The state park yurts are insulated, canvas-covered tents with wood floors and wood stoves, available year-round. They also feature operable windows, a domed roof with a skylight, bunkbeds and a table and chairs or stools.

The yurts in Cuyuna opened in March, and Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area manager Steve Weber said they've been a hit since they've opened.

"It went very well, attendance was quite high and people have been really enjoying it," Weber said.

The three yurts along the west side of Yawkey Mine Lake have been mostly booked up this summer, Weber said. There have been a few openings during the week, but the weekends have been full.

"It's hard to get a reservation right now," Weber said.

The DNR issues a survey to everyone who stays in the yurts, in order to get a better idea of what brought them to the area, Weber said. The activities most cited by visitors include:

• Relaxing, 73 percent.

• Mountain biking, 68 percent.

• Swimming, 43 percent.

• Photography, 37 percent.

The same survey revealed 97 percent of visitors rated the yurts as "very good or good," Weber said. In addition, 94.5 percent of visitors said they'd recommend the yurts to friends and family.

Since the yurts opened, they have had 230 nights rented, Weber said. A little more than 1,000 people have stayed in the yurts, with an average party size of 4.4. The capacity for the yurts is seven people.

The Cuyuna Lakes Crusher, sponsored by the Cuyuna Lakes Chamber of Commerce, brought 418 registered riders for the Sunday race, Jessica Holmvig, chamber executive director, said. The event was so successful the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series has already confirmed it will bring another series race to Cuyuna in 2016.

Holmvig spoke with many first-time visitors to Cuyuna during the event, and she said many were already planning a return trip to the trails.

"That in all was a big win for us," Holmvig said. "Having people experience the trails here that haven't experienced them before."

Crosby Mayor Joanna Lattery said the event went "really well," and is only going to become more and more popular in the future.

"I just think it's going to be a tremendous boost to the area," Lattery said.

Aaron Hautala, president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, said he thought the event was a "tremendous success, in terms of the number of people that came to town." Hautala said he was surprised to learn it was many racers' first time in Cuyuna, since the trails have been open for five years.

"Once they raced it and rode it, they were screaming fans of Cuyuna," Hautala said. "There's still a lot of people that can come here, which is great news for all of us."

The mountain bike series has a dedicated group of followers, Holmvig said, so promoters knew the event would bring around 200-300 racers. Exceeding those expectations was a good sign for the future, she said.

"Four hundred racers, that's a good day," Holmvig said.

The event turnout was better than what Lattery thought it would be and she "was very pleased with it."

The goal with hosting a race for the first time is to deliver excellence, Hautala said, and the Cuyuna lakes trails delivered excellence. It also brought first-time visitors to Cuyuna, and there's a benefit to "bringing a family up that never would have been to Cuyuna otherwise." Those visitors then make return visits and bring more and more friends with them.

"That's how you have that compounding interest of economics, which is what we're after," Hautala said.

One concern that arose from the event was a shortage of lodging, Holmvig said, a concern that will be addressed by the 2016 event by the opening of new campgrounds like True North Basecamp. Another concern was parking availability, which prompted discussions about including shuttles for spectators next year.

"Just little things like that that we need to tweak and figure out for next year," Holmvig said. "All in all, it was run like a fine-oiled machine."

Lattery said the newness of the event meant there were a few hiccups, but "it's new, and we'd love to do it again."

The first five years of the trails have been marked by a lack of lodging options, Hautala said. The majority of cyclists prefer to camp, and the city of Crosby and Cuyuna lakes campground provided about 60 sites. The majority of bicyclists will travel to the area without knowing the have a place to stay, he said.

"Take your family for a four-hour drive, and you may or may not be able to stay there," Hautala said. "That's not great."

True North Basecamp will be able to fill that need when it opens in September, Hautala said. Local restaurants also seem to be "incredibly busy," he said, "and I think that's great."

"I go to breakfast in the morning during the event, and there's nowhere to sit," Hautala said. "There's nowhere to sit, and I think that's great."

The year-round bicycling season also means there's a more stable, consistent demand for restaurants, Hautala said. Instead of spiking in the summer months, which "creates that stable, year-round economy."

Economic impact

In order to accurately gauge the economic impact of the event, promoters organized a survey run by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the University of Minnesota's Tourism Center, Holmvig said. The results of the survey were unavailable as of press time, but an observation of the surrounding area reveals the impact the trails have had on local businesses.

"Businesses are growing, we have new businesses coming in, tourism is up," Holmvig said. "It's a really exciting time to live in the Cuyuna lakes region and it's only going to get better."

Joining forces with Andrew T. Hook, a retired economist with a doctorate living in Riverton, the mountain bike crew designed an online survey to gauge economic impact, Hautala said. The survey launched last fall on social media and generated 700 responses in two months, "which is an incredibly good return on investment for an online survey."

Hook crunched the numbers and determined the trails had an impact of $2 million on the surrounding area, Hautala said. If the plans to expand the trails come to fruition, Hook conservatively forecasted a $21 million annual economic impact.

Interest in cycling is booming right now, Hautala said, but it also serves as the bait drawing other industries to the area.

"There will be businesses that will relocate to the area to be close to it," Hautala said. "Manufacturing companies will show up because of it."

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Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area

Location: Ironton

By the numbers:

  • 4,626 acres
  • 25 miles of mountain bike trails
  • 118,484 annual visits
  • 26,000 riders on the trails last year
  • Six natural lakes, 15 deep lakes from former mine pits
  • Lakes feature trout, northern, bass, crappies, sunfish and walleyes
  • Activities include mountain biking, hiking, birding, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, swimming, standup paddleboarding and scuba diving.

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Between the Cuyuna Chamber and the mountain bike crew, the Cuyuna lakes trails are able to host regular events like the Cuyuna Lakes Klunker in August and the Salsa Oremageddon in October, Holmvig said.

Part of the what draws mountain bikers to the Cuyuna lakes trails is the unique terrain, Holmvig said. Bike trails built on the old mine tailings mean "the terrain is a little different than anything out there," she said. Tailings are the materials left over after the valuable part of an ore is separated from the useless portion, according to the Pembina Institute.

Lattery works as a real estate agent in the area, and many of her clients "comment on the trails and how great they are." They also comment on the need for more lodging in the area, and Lattery is working with different organizations and investors to make that happen.

"We're listening to what they're saying, and we're planning," Lattery said. "We're listening very closely and try to meet some of their needs."

Destination travelers love how the trails are set in the middle of different towns, and different amenities are all close by, Hautala said. It feels like a getaway, while never being too far from civilization, he said.

"It's that whole, adventuring without being so far out there that you're really at risk," Hautala said.

Riders also love how the trails offer segments that vary in skill level, Hautala said, from beginner to expert. Not all riders in a group are in the same skill set, he said, so "they can all ride the same trail, they're just all going to ride at a different speed and a different line."

Mountain biking destination

The Cuyuna lakes trails are starting to get national and international attention as a mountain biking destination, Holmvig said. The International Mountain Bicycling Association has given the trails a Ride Center silver designation, an upgrade from the previous bronze level. Cuyuna is the only IMBA Ride Center in Minnesota and one of 27 ride centers in North America.

"It's pretty amazing to see the community come together and volunteer and all the work that was put in," Holmvig said. "It's pretty amazing to see where it is now."

The recognition is important for citizens in the area, Lattery said. As the trails grow, Crosby will grow as a destination with it, she said.

"We just have to be mindful of all that, and try to grow Crosby in the right direction," Lattery said. "But not go too fast that we don't do it right."

The city of Crosby was also recently recognized as a bike-friendly city by the League of American Bicyclists, Lattery said.

"That was quite an honor to be chosen for that," Lattery said. "I think it's a great sport, it's a family sport, and it's a fun sport."

Expansion funding

In June, the Minnesota State Parks and Trails announced the DNR would use $600,000 to expand the trail system in the Cuyuna lakes. Hautala said because the money is tied to the state government, it's hard to predict the timetable for the improvements. This fall, groups will look at the current trail maps and determine where the new trails will go.

"What it'll do is create a one-way trail system," Hautala said.

There are a few two-way trails in the system, which can be dangerous when riders meet from opposite directions, Hautala said. Removing the two-way trails increases safety and makes it a more desirable trail system.

"We want to be able to put tons of people into those trails without having to worry about people meeting head-on," Hautala said.

Once those changes are made, the trail system will be a giant, one-way, 30-mile loop, Hautala said. Many two-way rider interactions "aren't a big deal," he said, "but it's not worth the risk."

Expanding the trails means visiting riders won't be able to ride the whole system and go home without spending any money in the surrounding area, Holmvig said. The goal is to expand the trails and "have people bike the trails longer and spend more money at our businesses and communities."

The trails feature segments for all skill levels and the whole family, Holmvig said, which is how they're marketing it.

There's also a push to connect paved area trails to the mountain bike trails, in order to make the whole area more bike friendly, Lattery said. They're also not ignoring those who come to the area to fish or camp, she said, as bikers like to camp when they visit as well.

Potential businesses are also paying close attention to the booming bike trails, Lattery said. Two hotels considering moving into the Crosby area have included in their plans bike workshops and places to store bikes, she said.

"This is slowly going to grow Crosby," Lattery said.

The long-term vision for the trails is based upon three days of riding, Hautala said. Meaning, an average rider could ride the trails for three days without repeating the same thing.

"The point behind all of that is so you can retain someone in your town or region," Hautala said.

Bicycling is growing in popularity because it appeals to many different generations and skill levels, Hautala said. It provides a high-quality outdoor experience for everyone looking "for a different kind of outdoor recreation that's a little more interactive," he said.

Hautala was one of those looking for a different kind of outdoor experience when the trails opened in 2011. He accepted a friend's invitation to try the trails shortly after they opened, "and I could not believe what I was riding," he said.

It was a similar experience to his beloved downhill skiing, which he did in Colorado, Hautala said. He loved the flow and momentum of the experience, and "now it was in my backyard."

"It only took one ride, if not 15 minutes," Hautala said. "Forget about it, I'm going for this."

 

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .

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