Thursday, July 18, 2024

Pro-BMX contingency wants a race course in Wilmington

BMX is among the fastest growing sports in the country. Its backers tout a robust economic impact and positive effects on youth populations. Through partnerships with municipalities, BMX advocates have established facilities, but since park land in New Hanover County is scarce, a course could eventually be built on private property. (Port City Daily/Courtesy USA BMX)

WILMINGTON – Proponents of BMX racing are on a mission to convince county leaders that competitive bicycle racers should have a place among the county’s parks. 

Touting surging participation numbers and a hefty economic tourism impact, BMX proponents pitch the youth leagues to municipalities with a glowing forecast, in the hopes of partnering to build a racing facility.

The local push to bring a dirt track race course to the area is headed up by Amanda Saulter, who started Port City BMX last year. The organization hopes to either establish a course within an existing county park, or — if that proves impossible — utilize nonprofit status to acquire land and construct the facility. 

“I don’t even know if any of our parks have enough land at this point to sustain the BMX track, which is something we would love to be able to do, is just to be able to go into an existing park,” Saulter said. “But even if that doesn’t exist, it’s not going to stop us from trying to get a track in the area.”

Saulter said her kids became hooked on the sport last year — which matches riders against each other by age and skill level. They began to chase the thrill across the Carolinas and Virginia in pursuit of new tracks. The closest accredited BMX track is in Raleigh, and the Carolina Nationals race will be held in Rock Hill, S.C., later in March. 

Saulter emailed the New Hanover County parks and gardens director, bringing news that Port City BMX obtained its nonprofit approvals.

In the corner of the grassroots effort is USA BMX, the world’s largest sanctioning body for BMX racing. The organization has more than 70,000 members racing on over 300 sanctioned tracks throughout North America. 

While USA BMX provides liability insurance and centralized software to all accredited race tracks, the facilities are owned independently. Because of the unified points system, youth racers — who make up 80% of BMX riders — can compete across state lines, and the season runs for nearly the entire calendar year. 

In the past, municipalities have taken on the cost of constructing BMX tracks. USA BMX partnered with the City of Tulsa and the city’s sports commission on a $15 million course. Tulsa has hosted the sport’s Grand Nationals race, the world’s largest BMX event, for two decades. The Tulsa facility, which includes the official hall of fame, acts as a headquarters for USA BMX.

Some facilities are operated on private land, which could be the outcome in Wilmington, Saulter said, if space in an existing park proves impossible to find. 

“You need anywhere from 2 to 5 acres,” Saulter said. 

Constructing a BMX track in a county park — where restrooms and parking already exist — could be done with 2 acres, “possibly even less, depending on how the space is set up,” Saulter said. 

“But if you were to go out and buy private land, it would have to be at least 5 acres,” she said. 

Tara Duckworth, New Hanover County parks and gardens director, said several BMX proponents have reached out in recent years. 

“We have not had the opportunity to fully research yet, but it’s on our list to look into,” she wrote in an email. 

She said the insurance needs, total costs and land requirements have yet to be drilled down. Duckworth added that Ogden skatepark is accessible to BMX riders, “so we have been able to provide some opportunities but perhaps more to come in the future.”

According to Justin Travis, director of new track development for USA BMX, a BMX facility in DeSoto, Tex., attracted 9,000 attendees for a national race, and 6,000 attendees for the state championships. In addition to the 60,000-square feet BMX facility, the 75-acre Grimes Park Sports Complex in Texas also has nine soccer fields and nine baseball fields. The BMX program attracted more recruits than baseball, swimming and football, Travis said. It was second only to soccer. 

“I think there’s a good potential for a scene here,” said Anthony Villani, a BMX rider for more than two decades who recently moved to Wilmington. “If they put a track in this town, that would be incredible.” 

Villani said that, while he was trained as a freestyle rider, having dirt courses helps riders hone their technique at a young age. 

“The riders that come out of that are on another level,” he said. “You develop all this skill, all this mechanical skill, way before you even try to do a trick.”

The estimated economic impact of the BMX Super Nationals at the DeSoto track was $1.1 million, while the estimates for the state championship’s economic impact came out to $735,000. 

“Helping people work with their local municipalities to bring a BMX track to their town is what I love doing,” Travis said. 

In a Georgia city that Travis hoped to deal with, municipal leaders had spent $5 million revamping local softball fields. Travis said the politicians had no understanding of the bicycle racing sport, which unlike the freestyle variety, has nothing to do with performing tricks.

“And I’m struggling for them to put in $500,000 for a BMX track for a whole facility,” he said. “Once we get the understanding, it’s much easier to have a municipality fund a BMX racing facility in a very similar fashion to a softball field.” 

Travis claimed the estimated throughput for a BMX facility would be four times higher than the total projected users of the softball fields recently redone by the Georgia city, which Travis did not name. 

“If you play soccer, you play soccer,” he said. “But there’s a lot of kids that want to ride bikes that want to do BMX, that do not have the opportunity because there is no facility in their area.” 

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