I’m sure the vast majority of our younger readers will have no clue who Mike Gentilcore is, so I’ll keep this introduction short and to the point. Mike has a huge history on the East Coast, especially in regards to the trails and racing scenes out there. He’s been involved since 1979 and has even served on the board of directors for the NBL. Most recently, his largest effort in the BMX world has been as the president of the Lehigh Valley Bicycle Association, which is focused primarily on keeping two of the world’s most epic sets of trails alive-Catty Woods and Posh. The story with keeping the spots alive is full of hard work, passion, and motivation, and there’s a lot to be learned from both situations. Moving past the legalizations of the two sets of trails, Mike was even kind enough to offer some practical and useable advice for anyone out there who might be in hot water regarding their local trails as well. Sit back and acquire some knowledge about what it takes to legalize and maintain years of hard work and labor by a crew of dedicated BMX riders.
Can you talk about the situation with Posh and Catty and how it is unique from a lot of other situations? Would you mind telling the story about the legalization of the trails?
I don’t know if this has ever been done before with private land owners. I know there are other trails around the country where the city has given permission, and that's awesome. But this is the first time I think I’ve seen trails lease the land, form an organization, and insure it themselves, especially with multiple trails. Back in 2009, Catty was approached by its landowner, which is an international airport, and they said, “Hey, if you guys want to keep the trails, you guys are gonna have to legalize.” Flash (Jay Crosson) spearheaded it, because those were his trails. We happened to work together at the same place and started putting our heads together on lunch break. One of our first thoughts was, “maybe one of the race sanctions will do it.” I had just started to be on the board of directors for the NBL before it went out of business. But I realized well before that time that it wasn’t the way to go - they were great people, but it just wasn't the right environment – too many rules. Plus with all of this work and trail history at risk, I knew we were probably better just going it alone because we fully understood what was at stake -we live and die for this. So Flash went out and he found an insurance company to do it, and they formed their own organization called Catty Corp and they got it done.
Soon enough, we got into the same situation with Posh, which is privately owned land. They way it happened was crazy: They were filming in town for the Transformers II movie. The producers discovered the trails while filming the movie nearby and notified the landowner. The landowner came to look and ended up talking with a rider from Germany who told him he’d waited his whole life to come ride there. The landowner had no clue that it was that important to people. So once the landowner found out, Posh was in the same boat, and we had to legalize. Coming off what Catty did, we had already had momentum, but the difference now was I had just been through the whole NBL bankruptcy/merger and had lived that whole ordeal from the inside of that organization. From that, I fully understood the legal ramifications and types of characters that are out there, both good and bad, and from going through that experience, I learned how serious it was to dot every "i" and cross every "t". It’s more than just getting an entity identification number (EIN) and paying your insurance. You have file all the proper non-profit paperwork, you have to have "by-laws", file meeting minutes, you have to have all of this stuff that you wouldn't think is critical from an inexperienced perspective. And you have to think not only about protecting the trails, but you need to protect the riders and the people running the organization as well. So from a liability standpoint, you have to really treat it like a business.
So here we were with two trails in the same boat and significant bills to pay, and it made no sense for two groups of friends located 20 minutes apart to each be doing this independently. So we got this idea to combine them. Since we’re in the Lehigh Valley, we called ourselves the Lehigh Valley Bicycle Association. It was a no-brainer that for ourselves and for the entire BMX industry, it would make more sense if we combined.
When did this all become official?
Catty became official in 2009 and we formed the LVBA in 2010. The whole merger was finalized just recently.
I’ve heard that a lot of companies have really stepped up to help out with the bills of the trails. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, a lot of companies have donated all kinds of things from major donations to smaller things like parts and stuff at the jams. Their support has been crucial and we’re all very thankful for it. S&M stepped up and has been the number one supporter financially. They just believed in what we were doing and supported us, expected nothing in return. Odyssey has been a major supporter too, and it was really amazing to see that support come right through to help us. These companies, along with Mutiny and Sunday, were there supporting us from the beginning. Without these and all the additional companies who donated stuff, this would not have been possible. We are going to put something together on our pawoods.com website to make sure everyone gets thanked because if I try to list everyone here I will miss someone and we are truly thankful for everyone's support.
It sounds like the bills to run the trails are pretty significant?
There’s two ways in which this situation is unique-one is that the landowners even gave us a chance. But the other thing that was unique was the big bills that came with it. As a small organization, you do all of your own legal work, saving legal counsel for the absolute musts. But when you’re dealing with lawyers for an international airport, they have their own internal costs as a large organization and you have to be able to reimburse those expenses to check contracts and stuff like that, yet alone pay insurance. It costs well over $10,000 a year to run this organization and no one gets paid, ever. It's work to be done on top of all the regular trail maintenance, etc. But it's our home so we will always do whatever it takes. But as much as it takes financially to stay alive, we are very fortunate in that we have almost 20 years of history going back in the magazines and videos where they supported us and helped make the trails famous. So in that way, it made sense for the sponsors to help out as well. It’s a synergy – the sponsors have helped us survive and we are now in a position to promote them and promote the sport, we now have a chance to really give back to BMX as best as we can through these trails.
Outside of the sponsors, how did the money come in and how does it still?
The sponsors helped us with about a third of our operating costs, but the other two thirds of the funding have come from the riders, who did a ton of work themselves. The Catty guys started that off. They were doing everything…they were doing car washes, they were doing raffles…they had all kinds of things. Dave King threw a catered dinner…that was a really unique event, it wasn’t just riders...It was friends of riders and their parents...they came out and had such a great time that they asked “when are you doing this again?” So all sorts of things made everything come together. Moving forwards, we’re looking to bring in more sponsorship money to keep it sustainable for a long time. To me, it seems like the trails are important enough to the industry and to all of the riders around the world who visit each year so there is a lot of support there. You’ve been to the trails, you know how it is, it’s a real BMX family vibe, even with our international visitors, it’s like family. You see your relatives at least once a year at Christmas, well we see our extended BMX family at least once a year at the trails. So I think this has helped bring a lot of people together. So it’s really neat. They support us, and we get to give back to them.
Who is on the board of directors?
We’ve got Jay Crosson, Chris Janis, Jay Lonergan, and Dave King, with myself as president. But as a board we never forget we’re here to serve the guys who build the trails and protect all the hard work they have done. We are here to serve them.
How have the trails changed since they’ve become legal?
It’s a good question. There’s some basic rules. Everyone has to sign a waiver, but that’s about it. We didn’t want to change things too much. They’re trails, they’re supposed to be free-spirited. I’ve been building trails since 1979 so I know it well-it’s about having a free spirit and having a good time. We were very conscious that when we did the trails legally, that we didn't lose that. You didn’t want someone from out of town who came all that way to come ride with us to feel like it was a skatepark and there were a ton of rules. We didn’t want to charge people, we didn’t want to wreck the vibe. So all of that stuff we do organizationally is done within the organization. The paperwork is filed and the meetings we have are all done away from the trails. When we’re at the trails, we want it to feel like it always has - pure BMX fun.
Was it difficult to find an insurance company to cover the trails?
You know, it actually wasn’t that hard. Now with all of the skateparks, there are now more insurers than there ever have been. And also, bike riding and skateboarding are more accepted now. So we actually had more choices than we would have had previously. I wouldn’t say that there are a ton of companies out there doing it, but there are way more out there than there were ten or especially twenty years ago to choose from.
So say someone has a set of trails that they’ve put work into that get discovered. Let’s talk about what they should do in this circumstance.
My advice to riders is this – learn about what it takes to make your trails legal before you even get into that situation. Learn how to form a non-profit group, learn about by-laws, all the necessary tax forms, and learn about insurance. You might also look at organizations for other sports in your area for guidance. But learn all you can and do it right. If someone is in this situation, they’re welcome to call me about it. I have a few trails around the U.S. that I've helped get going in the right direction. If your trails aren’t in trouble yet, you need to think very carefully about how you approach it, if at all. But once you get into that situation, you want to be ready to make moves quickly.
And also, there are a lot of resources out there, especially for small businesses. Right here in Lehigh Valley, we have something called SCORE which supports small businesses. We were able to go there and further our knowledge about running a solid non-profit organization. And I’m sure any major city would have those kind of resources available to you.
And online, things like the IRS website – there are a lot of resources there that people can look at and learn about all of this stuff. One bit of advice I’d give-it all seems very complex, but it’s really not. And in the end, if you have what it takes to build trails…you do all of that hard work, and you do all of that maintenance…you definitely have the work ethic to pull it off. If we can do it, everyone there can do it too, provided the land ownership is on board with you.
Do you have any advice on dealing with governing municipalites, etc., about this issue?
The one big thing I’ve learned about this-people outside of the trails have a totally different mindset. Of course, they’re worried about liability, but they don’t know what BMX is. So you have to be a good spokesperson. All the basics you apply to keeping your trails…you can’t have litter, you respect your neighborhood…all of this stuff extends into dealing with the cities that you’re dealing with. It’s how you present yourselves. If you present yourselves as being rough around the edges, people aren’t going to want to deal with you. But if you present yourself in a professional manner, they’ll treat you that way.
Another thing too-if your trails are in trouble and you think they’re going to get plowed, I think it’s even more important then to keep your trails in order. Because sometimes, people will want to come to your aid or help out last minute. I’ve seen situations where people say, “We’re going to plow your trails, but we’re going to give you another place to build.” I saw that happen in New Jersey one time. But if you let your trails go downhill right at the end, like there’s no hope, people look at you like an eyesore and people won’t want to help you. But if you keep things clean to the last minute, people just might think, “these guys are really clean and organized, we’ll give them a shot.”
Your focus is obviously on keeping Posh and Catty existing. Do you have any sort of plans to expand further-nationally / internationally to help out others around the country and world?
The sky is the limit. We’ve talked about that kind of thing, but our focus right now is to just keep these trails going. We’re also respectful of the fact that a lot of trails aren’t in the same situation as us and don’t need the help yet. We’re not going around trying to blow trails up or anything like that-we’re really here to help those in need. The way Catty came together and the way that Posh and Catty joined together sort of happened naturally and organically and riders in need from around the country are already calling me and asking me questions about this. I don’t really know what the future holds, but we’re open to anything. We’re really out to help protect trail riding and keep this thing going. It’s a really amazing thing. We know how much love and hard work is put into these places, so we really know what is at stake when someone’s trails are in trouble and we really have a passion for keeping that going and helping others. Thanks for interviewing us!