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Issaquah ponders marketing itself as a mountain biking destination
Issaquah Councilor Tola Marts has drafted a proposal for a mountain biking task force that would bring riders, hikers, business owners and other interested parties to the same table to explore the opportunities available to provide more trails, better access to trails, and to promote the city in the national mountain biking community.
Go up to the new Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park any day of the week and you will see riders from all over Western Washington. Young and old, male and female, they come from Tacoma, Bellevue, West Seattle, and Bellingham, to use what is gathering a reputation as one of the best forested mountain bike parks in the state. The success of Duthie Hill has led two City of Issaquah councilors to explore the idea of making Issaquah a mountain bike destination, "the adult version of Boulder," which would attract mountain bikers from all over to visit the city, to stay here, spend their money in local businesses and help develop a thriving local economy. Councilmember Tola Marts has drafted a proposal for a mountain biking task force that would bring riders, hikers, business owners and other interested parties to the same table to explore the opportunities available to provide more trails, better access to trails, and to promote the city in the national mountain biking community. Though not the first to advocate for more mountain biking facilities in Issaquah, it was Marts who proposed that providing a mountain biking park in the Issaquah Highlands, or elsewhere in the city, be a formal city council goal. With four votes from his colleagues, the idea is among the top 17 2011 draft city goals currently under consideration. Marts said it was during his campaigning for a city council seat last year that he first heard about a need for more mountain biking space. "I heard about it alot," he said, adding that since he raised the task force idea, he has received "more feedback on that than on any other issue since I took office." Both Marts and fellow councilor John Traeger, a keen mountain biker, are eager to make it clear that any expansion of mountain biking access in the parks and mountains in and around Issaquah would not come at the expense of existing hiking trails. Both are aware of the opposition to mountain biking that exists among some hikers, who claim that bikes damage the environment, erode trails, and present a public safety issue. "We have to be really careful, as we have a hiking community here that has done a tremendous amount of work to protect the open spaces around Issaquah," Traeger said. Indeed, without such famous hikers and nature lovers as Harvey Manning, Ruth Kees, Ira Spring, and the many others who have gone on to form the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and the Foothills Branch of the Mountaineers, there would likely be little of the Issaquah Alps left to enjoy. "This is not an attempt to change the uses of existing trails," Traeger said. "Those will be hiking trails for ever as far as I am concerned." But Traeger, who has been riding trails at Grand Ridge, Duthie Hill and all over the state since the late 1980s, is excited about what a strong mountain biking program could offer teenagers, in particular. "There are a lot of younger kids riding around Duthie," he said. "There are whole groups of young teens, tweens as they are called, that are underserved for stuff to do. By that age, many of them have dropped out of team sports, and otherwise would just be sitting at home, playing computer games. But when you see them up at Duthie Hill, you can see they are really into it." Traeger suggested the city's Parks Department could develop summer programs for mountain biking. Beyond that, both Marts and Traeger believe mountain bikes could mean more to the city than just good exercise. The town of Oakridge, on the western edge of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, is building an entire economy around the sport, marketing itself as "the Mountain Biking Capital of the Northwest." The town's chamber of commerce and local businesses are finding ways to convert their proximity to mountains and trails into dollars for the community, resurrecting a place that once relied heavily on timber mills and dying primary industries. Traeger said City of Issaquah Economic Development Manager Dan Trimble was supportive of the idea, aligning as it does with Trimble's aim to use outdoor recreation as a marketing tool for the city. The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, which built the facility at Duthie Hill, is involved in the discussions too, a handy partner to have with their network of riders and trails work volunteers. Marts said one of the first things the city could do was develop connections between the parks that already exist, and provide uniform signage. "Wouldn't it be great to be able to ride from Sammamish over to Duthie Hill Park, and then down to Issaquah?" he said. "As it is now, I see people on the Highpoint Trail, and they are asking, 'how do you get to Duthie?' We want to look at the things that we as a city can do to complete that access." It was Traeger who used the term "the adult version of Boulder," and he believes a strong network of recreational facilities would attract large private organizations to the city - high tech corporations with young, talented engineers who love mountain biking. With perks for employees the key to retaining the best and the brightest in successful companies, a nearby mountain bike park would definitely top a foosball table or in-office shiatsu massages in the fierce competition to provide the most desirable workplaces. Traeger said one of the challenges of the process will be engaging the various landowners - spread across various state and federal departments and the private sector. But it is work that should be done, he said, and the city could benefit from it in a myriad of ways. "There is a great opportunity here."