Come for a Job, Stay for the Trails. Using Mountain Biking to Lure Great Employees

Cities around the US are working to attract new workers with mountain bike trails. For some places, this gamble more important than ever.
Photo: Bob Robinson

It’s no secret that mountain bikers will travel far to ride great trails. We’ve covered this thoroughly. Towns build trails, mountain bikers travel to towns, ride trails, buy lots of beer and pizza after the ride, businesses make money, and the story goes on. This isn’t exactly a sustainable way of living for most of us though, and the majority of a mountain biker’s riding takes place close to where they live. In fact, this is IMBA’s next big push. If mountain biking can crown destinations that stand tall and proud, then what can it do for our own cities?

IMBA’s reasoning for the push on hometown trails? Statistics spell it out on their webpage. About 63% of recreationists travel 10 miles or less to play, 80% of Americans live in urban areas, and close to 90% of rides happen on what mountain bikers consider “local” trails, (which IMBA cites from Singletracks). IMBA also says that more trails mean a healthier community and a better quality of life.

Community health

These were the exact reasons the Walton Brothers started investing in a trail network in Bentonville, Arkansas, home of Wal-Mart corporate headquarters and countless workers.

“While it was their vision to have this great cycling culture and to bring people in, it wasn’t initially planned to do that,” says Aimee Ross. “[…] Bentonville is the home of Wal-Mart, and there are thousands of employees. Many of the vendors are based here and they also have employees. They wanted to start providing a better quality of life for the people that live here.”

While the economic benefits for mountain bike tourism destinations are well-known by now, what’s not talked about as much is how building trails can improve residents’ health just as much as their economy.

In a huge study put together by the Walton Foundation a year ago, they found that biking in Northwest Arkansas added about $86M in total health benefits to the local economy, $79M of which are reflected in reduced mortality benefits according to the World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool. They found about $7M in avoided health care costs, also.

Photo: Bob Robinson

The foundation determined avoided healthcare costs by estimating about 4,700 locals around Northwest Arkansas ride regularly at a moderate intensity level and do so frequently. The study also found that biking in the region saved about ten lives per year by preventing conditions like diabetes and heart disease that are exacerbated by a sedentary lifestyle.

As the saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” but for businesses that are interested in saving health care costs associated with their employees, by promoting biking, it may be better stated that “a dime of prevention is worth a dollar of cure.” While investing in a local trail network seems like a lot of money up front, it appears to be worthwhile in the end.

Trail incentives

For one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, Boise has recognized mountain biking as a reason why people want to relocate there, and the city is using it in certain cases to attract new employers.

Historically, Boise has had a stake in the agriculture and food technology industries and is home to the Simplot company, founded by J.R. Simplot who developed the frozen french fry. Now, the city is also home to tech and startup companies like Micron and Paylocity.

“When you look at the ages [of people] that are moving in, it’s definitely what you like to see from a workforce perspective,” says Clark Krause.

Krause is the executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership. The organization offers assistance to businesses interested in relocating or starting in the Boise area with the intent to oversee smart development and growth in Boise. Part of that means that Krause entertains business leaders when they visit Boise to see if it’s right for them.

Occasionally that means taking clients on a mountain bike ride on the Boise trails, 200 miles of which, Krause says, are accessible right from downtown and city neighborhoods. He says this is one of the strongest selling points for businesses interested in moving.

Mountain bikers in the Boise foothills. Photo: Brent, via Flickr.

“If we can [show them that], then we close the deal.”

Recently he had a client who owns a fishing gear manufacturing company in the South come up to Boise to consider relocating the business. Krause found out that the man and his wife both mountain bike, so Krause arranged to have a former pro take them out on the Boise trails. Krause says he believes that ride influenced their decision to relocate.

Tax incentives and government grants also make it easier for businesses relocating to Boise. There are tax breaks for companies that create new, high-wage jobs in Idaho or build facilities that create jobs.

Ideally, there would be more government funding available to build even more trails to lure new residents, but Carlos Matutes, the executive director of Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association (SWIMBA) hopes that the influx of residents will result in more members and membership money soon. He’s seen places like Salt Lake City be more proactive in marketing their trails.

“I’m hoping that with the population growth and the more people that we’re seeing on the trails, we can change that. We have a great trail network, but it can be much better.”

Matutes has a few plans to draw new residents into SWIMBA and increase membership dollars. He wants to build an inclusive and diverse image, which is challenging because he describes the Boise community as mostly white.

The goal is to work with the NICA leagues at local schools, and engage the refugee population with mountain biking as a way to integrate with schoolmates. SWIMBA is working on a new skills park also, and wants to build a bike library and a Strider-friendly trail to get kids started early.

Getting the message out

In Vermont, the message is more succinct. The state has been steadily losing its population, and the population as a whole is older, which again from a workforce perspective, isn’t good.

“These facts and this problem can no longer be ignored,” said new Governor Phil Scott during his inaugural address and State of the State on Jan. 10, 2019. “Just take our labor force as an example. Since 2009, our labor force has declined by about 15,000.”

Riders in the Killington Bike Park. Photo: Grant Wieler.

In the public K-12 schools, Scott says, they’re educating 30,000 less students than they were in 1997. That means fewer people to grow up and support the Vermont infrastructure, local businesses, and the state economy. With fewer people paying into the state tax, they’ll be challenged to sustain government welfare and social programs or pay back the state’s $4B debt. Multiple times throughout his address, Governor Scott cited recreation as one of Vermont’s greatest strengths.

That’s why the state started a remote worker grant in 2019 that rewards people interested in relocating to Vermont and who also work remotely, a grant of up to $5,000 that covers moving expenses, remote worker expenses like computers and software or membership at co-working spaces. The program had over 3,000 inquiries after it launched.

The other incentive for people considering relocation to Vermont? A thriving recreation and mountain bike scene. Later in his speech, Governor Scott talked about his visit to different towns and how employers have recruited new and young workers, some more successfully than others.

A particular case caught Scott’s attention. In Lyndonville, VT, just outside of Burke, Precision Composites had no trouble filling positions, even highly-skilled positions like engineering.

Kingdom Trails, Vermont. Photo: Rob Whelan.

“Now, that got my attention,” said Scott. “Because just the week before, I was at Collins Aerospace in Vergennes and they said they were looking to hire 25 engineers but were struggling to do so.”

What had Precision Composites done differently that ended with much different results?

“They put a ‘help wanted’ ad in a mountain biking magazine,” said Scott. The crowd, mostly made up of local Vermont government workers chuckled in unison at what a simple idea could do.

“The point is, we know people want to come here, we just need to identify and reach those who do.”

And if that works, then cities in Idaho and Vermont could have a fairytale ending just like towns known for mountain bike tourism. The question is, can it steer an entire state’s economy?

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