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Cycling’s stadium: Durango Mesa Park Foundation ready to build Colorado’s biggest bike park

Few road blocks still stand in way before shovels hit dirt
The Durango Mesa Park in southeast Durango boasts 1,850 acres of land. The area pictured will go toward the construction of the largest bike park in Colorado and one of the biggest in the U.S.

Durango soon could boast not only the biggest bike park in Colorado, but one of the biggest in the nation. The Durango Mesa Park Foundation is ready to make it happen.

In a meeting with community cycling leaders Wednesday night at Durango Mesa, formerly known as Ewing Mesa, Durango Mesa Park Foundation Executive Director Moira Montrose Compton and board member Gaige Sippy, the race director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, laid out the vision for what could become of a section of the 1,850 acre property southwest of downtown Durango.

For Sippy, the time has come to fulfill the vision of the late Ed Zink, the founder of the Iron Horse who was instrumental in bringing the 1990 Mountain Bike World Championships to Durango.

“For many years, Ed Zink pushed for Durango Parks & Recreation to be more supportive of cycling related amenities in our myriad of city park property and generally received a flat ‘No’ answer. I have advocated for the same along with many others,” Sippy said. “When the Durango Mesa Park was purchased by the Katz family, the opportunity for a real cycling related facility seemed a real possibility. At first, it looked like the Durango Parks & Recreation department would oversee the building of the bike park on the Mesa, but the feedback to the Durango Mesa Foundation was that the cycling community was apprehensive that it would be another unfulfilled promise from the city and never happen. So, the Durango Mesa Park Foundation stepped forward and said, ‘We will facilitate and pay for the bike park,’ recognizing the decades of empty promises and a need.

“When Ed was lobbying for Durango’s longstanding need for bike related amenities to serve all abilities of riders and also cater to and enhance the opportunity for our many decades of world class athletes, his rallying cry was: ‘Cycling needs a stadium.’”

Gaige Sippy, race director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic and a board member of the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, has long dreamed of Durango having its own bike park. In homage to Ed Zink, the founder of the IHBC, Sippy said the bike park at Durango Mesa Park can be “cycling’s stadium.”

The highly-coveted Durango Mesa property was purchased by Marc Katz, founder of Mercury Payment Systems, in 2015 with the intent to give back to the Durango community as Katz’s thank you for the town’s support of his company. In 2019, ownership of the property was placed in the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, which plans to convey ownership to the City of Durango and La Plata County.

Planning began in 2016 for a new La Plata County Fairgrounds to be built on the Mesa. The city began working on its area plan, which included the bike park, in 2018. The two plans together came to an estimated cost of $150 million.

In 2019, the three sides looked at how to accomplish that goal, and a plan was laid out to tackle the project in different phases with the first budgeted at $15 million.

“How do we get this open and not just continually go into the planning process,” Compton said. “So, we’ve come up with that plan. And 2020 allowed us to really strategize and get to the point where we are today. The Durango Mesa Park Foundation was created at the end of 2019, and all of the property went to the foundation. We continue to work with the county and the city to get to a point where this can become a reality.”

Compton and Sippy have toured the nation’s large-scale bike parks, particularly in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the Walton family, owners of Walmart, built hundreds of miles of mountain biking and multi-use trails along with a 300-acre bike park. It has turned the town into a booming haven for the bike industry and stolen the status of America’s top mountain bike town away from Durango.

Moira Montrose Compton, executive director of the Durango Mesa Park Foundation, shows where the La Plata County Fairgrounds will go at the Durango Mesa Park.

“I’ve lived here a long time. My family goes back four generations. I remember back in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of guys like Ed Zink and Ned Overend, this place was literally world-class biking,” said Ted Compton. “Anyone in the world knew were Durango was. To be perfectly honest, we’ve struggled to keep that. This is our opportunity to get there again. This bike park, this will be world class and will easily rival us having the world championships here in 1990. People will talk about this. I love the concept of people pointing at Durango and saying how cool of a town we are. It’s about having pride in amazing projects and things happening in your community.”

The plan

The goal of the bike park is to not only provide cyclists with a wide variety of trails in one place, it is to once again attract International Cycling Union (UCI) and USA Cycling events back to Durango. Durango Mesa Park has already successfully hosted two high school mountain bike state championship races for the Colorado Cycling League, and the vision is for international competitions to once again look at Durango to host events.

Concept maps for the bike park include a covered BMX track, pump tracks, mountain bike trails for all skill levels, a cyclo-cross specific area and downhill trails for all disciplines.

The Colorado Cycling League state championships were held in 2018 and 2019 at Durango Mesa Park, showing the area is ideal for one of the nation’s top bike parks.

Some of the top bike park builders have thought the foundation’s goals are too lofty when described over the phone. When they arrive at the Mesa, they believe in the vision on the land that is larger than the entire city of Durango.

And the foundation believes it can best accomplish the plan to build Durango a bike park to rival places such as Bentonville.

“The foundation decided we want to lead the effort on this bike park,” Sippy said. “Originally, the plan was for the bike park to be built by Durango Parks & Recreation. Some budgetary challenges were there and, candidly, we all want the bike park to be something different than what Parks & Rec would deliver to us. We’ve been fortunate Marc Katz has sat through a lot of meetings where he heard comments through the cycling community about us wanting our own place and a say in what it looks like.

“The Katz family has been generous. In addition to providing us $14 million in real estate, they said they’d step up and help us build that bike park, too. They’ve done the heavy lifting financially. Now we have to do the heavy lifting to make it happen.”

With the bike park, events such as the IHBC and those hosted by Fort Lewis College cycling and Durango Devo could have a home without having to jump through numerous hoops when it comes to obtaining permits and permission to close downtown streets for cycling events.

Levi Kurlander, Executive Director of Durango Devo, envisions a long-needed Devo headquarters at the bike park alongside FLC cycling, whose director Dave Hagen said he was ready to put shovel to dirt to start making the park happen.

Cobe Freeburn races at the Colorado Cycling League high school state championship races in 2019 at Durango Mesa Park.

“Anyone who has ever put on a cycling event in town, it’s not easy to do,” Sippy said. “It’s hard to get access, permits, a lot of those things. This is our chance to have the place we always wanted to have with jump lines, pump tracks, one-way trails. Everything we’ve wanted.”

Members of the running community also were invited to the meeting Wednesday. The foundation plans sport-specific trails to cut down on hiker versus biker conflicts, and equestrian trails are also in the plans along with the county’s new fairgrounds.

The foundation also envisions an Olympic level training facility on the site in future phases along with the construction of the amphitheater the Katz family has long wanted for music and cultural events.

“It’s all super exciting. We are literally at this cusp where things really can start happening,” Compton said. “Will something be in place in 2021? No. But 2022 we are looking at stuff and more in 2023. This will be Colorado’s biggest bike park. To accomplish that will take a number of different groups coming in to make that happen.”

Making it happen

The $15 million Phase 1 plan still has a budget shortfall of between $3.5 and $4 million, Compton said. The foundation has put up $5 million for the bike park along with the land. La Plata County has allocated its $5 million for the beginning of the new fairgrounds complex and its share of infrastructure costs.

What needs to get accomplished is work with the city for improvements to the intersection of Highway 3 and the entrance to Durango Mesa Park as well as construction on a better road leading up the Mesa. Then comes basic amenities such as running water for restrooms.

The Colorado Cycling League state championship races were held at Durango Mesa Park in 2018 and 2019, giving athletes a glimpse at what it could look like to have a massive bike park in Durango.

“What does it take for this to become a reality? That’s what we are working through,” Compton said. “We finished a traffic impact study for the road, and that is going to start going through (Colorado Department of Transportation) for a permit in the coming weeks. That will lay out the plan for construction. That’s a key piece for almost everything to happen up here, but really a key piece on being able to have amenities open all the time and to host events up here. So, that’s a critical piece.”

The foundation is trying to finalize a city purchase for open space on the property so the city can be involved in the initial infrastructure, Compton said. The city had also set aside $4 million when it originally was tasked with building the bike park. But the foundation has taken over that piece, and that city money has not yet been allocated for other use.

The foundation said no additional taxpayer money is needed to complete Phase 1 goals of the project.

“We need to talk to our public officials about how important this is and why we need this facility,” Sippy said. “The city has to help us with the infrastructure. The county is on board and getting their stuff done. You don’t get these deals often, and it’s a small amount of money compared to if the city paid for all of this.

“We are never going to get this gift again. There is no other piece of property that can house this and there’s not another benefactor willing to step up and help us get it done. We’ve talked about it for a long time, and usually deals like this have land but no money or money but no land. We’re in a good spot. We’ve got both. Now as a community, we need to step up so all the things we’ve groused about for 10, 20, 30 years, we can solve now and have it for our kids and future generations. It’s no longer a pipe dream. We can make this happen.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

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