Digging into the Massive, Million-Dollar Santa Cruz Paydirt Program

In November of 2019, Santa Cruz launched the Paydirt program, a $1M grant program for increasing mountain bike access in a number of ways. We interviewed Seb Kemp to get a better idea of what Paydirt looks like.

Photos courtesy of Santa Cruz

Back in November, Santa Cruz launched the Paydirt program, an initiative to put $1M toward mountain bike trails, advocacy groups, trail builders, non-profits, and anyone out there making the world of mountain biking better. That million dollars would be divided across groups or individual applicants over the next three years.

In the initial press release, Santa Cruz said they would consider any project that increases access for mountain bikes, whether it’s through more trails, or advocacy efforts, or making mountain biking more accessible to those who might find the barrier too high. But those weren’t the only limitations. “Who knows, we’re open to ideas.”

The brand didn’t have a crystal clear picture of how it would play out, and they still might not, but they’re closing on the first quarterly review deadline and after seeing hundreds of applications already, the vision is becoming less muddy.

To get a better idea of the intricacies of the Paydirt program and to see how much interest Santa Cruz has garnered with the launch, I reached out to their brand manager Seb Kemp.

Santa Cruz has given a lot of money to trail organizations before, but it seems like that giving may have been sporadic. What inspired the company to solidify it with the Paydirt program?

In the last few years we realized how many programs we were supporting and how many long-term relationships with people we established. With Downieville and Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), we had been partnering with them since 1996, so we go back a long way, but we’re also realizing we’re more than a California company, we’re a global company. We wanted to reach out and start extending our support to a wider group and [more] communities. Paydirt is structured to be more global and it allows us to refocus as a company. This is not something that should just be considered someone else’s job, or something that should be done sporadically. It’s a way for the whole company to recognize how trails and access to them are important for us and all of mountain biking.

Before Paydirt, was Santa Cruz donating a similar amount of money to trail organizations compared to what it will now with Paydirt?

No, Paydirt is a step up in contributions. In 2018, we donated about $175,000. It’s been more than that in some years and less than that in others.

A few years ago there was a project with a plan to build trails right on the coast of California just a few miles up the road where our factory was based. We donated about a half-a-million dollars to that project to get it kickstarted.

And we had other things like fundraising with bike raffles or other things. Then, when you put in the amount of hours or employees volunteer — last year we put in over 1,400 hours for our advocacy efforts. We encourage our employees to go out during the weekend and we also support our employees taking time off work to go and volunteer for organizations, so if there’s a mid-week project going on, we’ll pay for our employees to go and put that money back into the group.

These things, we’ve always tried to do, but Paydirt mechanizes the concept that we have a responsibility as a company to step up and really support what’s out there. It’s sort of a tired old trope that if there [weren’t] trails there would be none of this, but it’s true.

It’s good to hear that from a more organic standpoint because I think some people will say that this is a big PR move for Santa Cruz to sell more bikes, but it does sound like the company is really passionate about what makes the sport go around.

Definitely. Again, it’s a tired trope, but genuinely we’re a mountain bike company because we’re just mountain bikers and total mountain bike nerds and all completely addicted, infatuated, and driven crazy to think about it all the time.

And, it’s not just our responsibility, but we’re in a really privileged position to say cool, if we can make our business work, then let’s make sure that the culture and the life of mountain biking can sustain because one hand washes the other.

Looking at how the funds are distributed, is it divided up case by case, or is there an allotted amount per quarter?

We’re only [breaking the applications up] in quarters because it’s our way of keeping track of things. If we did this day in, day out, and responded to every application we had, then we’d be out of cash already.

So [we’ll] take it in every three months, review what’s out there, and give to whatever appears correct at the time — so there’s probably going to quarters where we go over that and years where we go way over that. Because we knew there would be a lot of applications, and there have been a lot.

What kind of proposals have you received so far?

It ranges. For example, Sierra Buttes didn’t realize we were kicking this off. At the same time, they’ve been working on a project called ‘connected communities,’ which is what they’ve done in Downieville for 25 years to create a bunch of jobs that would keep a bunch of people in town and keep the town sustaining through recreational trails. There are a lot of underprivileged communities that are formerly resort towns just over the hillside and down the river. They said they could revive the towns and keep people living there, rather than in ghost towns, with connected communities. The day they heard about it, they said they were looking for about $10M worth of investment and asked if it was a good fit for Paydirt. What they’re trying to do is grand in scale and those guys are so pro at what they do. So that’s one project.

When I responded to the SBTS, I said I can’t give you ten million dollars. It would be easy to give all of the money to one project and sign it off. At the same time, we’ve been getting projects in South America and Africa and those are small in scale. And those are really worthwhile because a little can go a long way. Even a small amount like $20,000, or $2,000, or $200 even can go a really long way in communities because they’re all at different stages in evolution.

It’s been really diverse and it hasn’t been just trail organizations. There have been quite a few schools with NICA and people have been applying for [programs to increase access for] younger or underprivileged people as well. So far, we’ve had about 200 applications, so it’s going to be a cool quarter.

With 200 applications so far, it’s going to be hard to narrow down. Is there a certain number of projects you’re approving every quarter?

It’s going to be really hard. If we didn’t have this quarterly process, we probably would have said yes to every single one that came in, so we would have found ourselves with a lot well supported projects, but with no rhyme or reason to it.

So we’ll have to reflect on what’s going to be really beneficial to the right communities because there are some great applications out there, but perhaps some aren’t the right fit or aren’t developed enough.

What does an ideal individual applicant look like?

We haven’t had that many individual trail builders apply, but we have had this side program going on for a while. Everyone is familiar with “getting a deal” in the mountain bike industry. We’ve tried to make sure that every trail builder who is doing something good in their community that we can get connected with, we support them in some way, whether it’s selling them a crazy deal on a bike so they’ve got a bike to get around and do their work, or we’ve tried to put tools in their hands to individual trail builders. Generally, those people are working to the betterment of the entire community network of trails and they’re working above board. Those kinds of people are some of the best people in mountain biking you can meet sometimes and we want to support those people.

And for group applicants, it looks like it’s a pretty rigorous process, and you’re asking for groups to have their plans coordinated with land management agencies?

We’re basically asking for as much evidence as we can so we know their plans are flushed out. It’s kind of like — if you can’t write a proposal, then you’re probably not going to make the most use out of someone else’s funds. We’re seeing some organizations come through and they have really well developed proposals and they have thought deeply about the project they want to work on. They’ve got multi-stakeholder approvals, they have permits, it works with their community, and they’ve thought about it holistically.

It goes without saying, but we can’t support a group that just wants trails and they’re just going to start digging unless there’s some evidence that they’ve considered the landowners, how they’ll work with them, and is there a plan around it? It sounds very boring, but those trails are going to be around for a lot longer, and that’s what we all want.

How does Santa Cruz plan to monitor the projects?

That was a question early on and we haven’t quite got an answer. Part of the process is finding the right people and the right groups and projects. It’s very clear who’s going to be around for a while. We don’t necessarily need to monitor, but we see it as creating long-term partnerships with these organizations. When you have a relationship you’re in constant communication. We’ve been spoiled with Downieville and the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship for the past 25 years. I hope there are projects that we fund today that have a 25- or 50-year relationship ahead of them.

Would Santa Cruz expect branded signage on funded and completed projects in places where it can be supported?

We talked about this a lot. It is definitely not a stipulation that we expect to have our name on signage or on the trail. I know that it possibly wouldn’t work and we’re confident enough in our brand that we don’t have to advertise everywhere, and it would be kind of douchey to demand your brand and logo get splattered everywhere. If we can support the right people and they know it, then that’s enough for us. I’m not saying that there won’t be opportunities to put a little engraving in a signpost at the right place at the right time, but it is not a stipulation, that the world will look like a Santa Cruz branded trail experience.

It’s just mountain biking, and our vision is that we hope Paydirt becomes bigger and encourages other brands to put into it and in the end, we might have started it but hope that it gets much bigger than us.

What do you think is working well for mountain bike access or advocacy right now?

I answer this with a bit of experience since I’m the trail director for the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA), so I see it from both sides. What is happening is there’s an incredible spike in the number of mountain bikers out there, in the number of mountain bike trails, and off-road recreation in general. I’m seeing a lot of groups out there that are volunteer-run organizations, handling the management, the maintenance and the building of huge swaths of public land recreation and resources. That is great because those are usually locals, so they usually understand the dynamics of the community. But, they are volunteers.

We really need to balance that a little bit. The trails are over-subscribed and we are over-working these volunteer groups, so the thing that I’m seeing, is that groups are doing the right thing and that is investing in payroll and hiring people to be their executive directors and trail builders, to manage these things on a more full-time basis. That might seem like a considerable amount of money for a group that isn’t directly going to the maintenance of the trails, but it ensures the management and long-term sustainability of those trail networks.

Usually, the groups that these volunteers work with — usually local councils or government — those are full-time bureaucrats and they don’t deal well with getting emails at 7 PM at night when someone is working in their spare time around their job. By hiring people, you get to meet these people and create relationships with them and push the agenda for recreation trails forward.

[Mountain biking] is a mainstream sport now and we’re recognized by all these bureaucracies and we have to work with them, and this is a real sport and a real thing and there are real implications for how we interact with them. There’s a greater eye on us now and we have to act accordingly.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.