Stepping Up the Granite #1:
Stepping Up the Granite examines the intersection of tourism, community development, and quality of life through interviews with New Hampshire people committed to championing the Granite State. Mark Hayes, Owner and CEO of Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, joins us for the first installment of this series. Over the past 15 years, Highland has become a premier mountain biking destination, known for its lift-served downhill courses that creatively challenge all levels of riders and bring new life to the former site of The Highlands ski area. In 2019, Mark and other local recreation enthusiasts established the Foothills Foundation, a nonprofit organization with the mission to promote outdoor recreation and economic expansion through community partnerships. The group hopes to expand and connect existing trails, develop recreational amenities, and make Central New Hampshire a top trail and mountain biking destination. Currently, the foundation is working with landowners to establish a connective, multi-use recreational trail through the scenic forests and countryside between Highland Mountain and the towns of Northfield and Tilton, with additional linkages to Franklin.
Beginning with the project’s inception, members of UNH Extension’s Community and Economic Development team have worked alongside the foundation’s committee members to help with visioning, organizing, and planning, as well as securing start-up funds through the USDA Rural Business Development Grant. On September 29, 2021, Foothills Foundation will host a casual, public Outdoor Recreation Summit at Highland Mountain Bike Park to share their developing vision with the public and gather community input through a widely-distributed survey.
Jada: Mark, I'd like to start by rewinding to around the year 2000, when you first became involved with the site of the former Highlands ski area. The mountain had closed in recent years following financial troubles, which had been happening to many small ski areas in the U.S. Could you tell me a little more about these origins of Highland Mountain Bike Park?
Mark: Previously, I had a high-tech business that I owned with my family. While I had been building the business, I was also getting more and more into mountain biking, and eventually into racing. When we sold the business in 2000, I needed my next move. I was on a ski trip to Whistler and went to check out their bike park. I had been riding ski area bike parks on the East Coast for a little bit up to that point, but they were doing it way differently out there. It was just a different experience with a-modern day mountain bike park system. That really convinced me that we need something like this on the East Coast. So, I looked for different properties, and I found this old, run-down, deserted ski area that was The Highlands. With the capital that I had from the sale of the company, I bought the property and hired a few folks to help me get it going. But it takes a lot of time and money to take an old, deserted ski area and put the types of amenities you need in place and then make money on it. It took me about 10 to 12 years to where it started to actually make sense. A lot of gray hairs in that timeframe.
J: Now, looking at the Foothills Foundation, it's another project that's in this early startup stage. The project essentially arose because you and other recreationists in the area had been wanting to leverage outdoor resources in the community. Tell me a little bit more about what inspired the idea of Foothills. Had it been something that had been on your mind for a while?
M: Not necessarily, because I've had a lot on my plate, just building Highland Mountain Bike Park along with my team. When I first came to town, a lot of people didn't really understand what I was trying to do. In a small town like Northfield, it can take a while to get people on board. But eventually, more bikers were coming into town and the recreation economy here was growing. In 2018, the Northfield town administrator at the time called me up and said that they were working with someone from UNH Extension to help them understand how they could potentially do something more recreation-based to utilize their open spaces, leveraging the momentum from Highland Mountain, and potentially turn Northfield into more of a recreation-based economy. They asked me to join the Open Spaces Committee and we looked at different properties where we could potentially build more trails. The Northfield Economic Development Corporation was also interested in outdoor recreation. From these two groups, an exploratory group emerged focused on the recreation piece. We broke off and formed the Foothills Foundation. If I had been going after the town saying, “hey, you should put trails in!” it would have been more difficult. So, as soon as I got that call from the town administrator saying, “hey, we want to do this and we want you involved,” I figured, okay, now is the right time for this.
J: I'm curious to know what you see as being some of the main benefits of Extension involvement. How do you think that Extension can be most valuable to initiatives such as this?
M: I first got to know Extension through [Community and Economic Development Field Specialist] Jared Reynolds. Northfield was trying to figure out, “what do we want for our community?” Jared came in with his knowledge from Extension, and taking a look at all of the assets of the area, recreation seemed to make a lot of sense. He then helped us secure some grant money to take it a step further. His abilities to find the right people, find funding, to be able to jumpstart this thing was a big benefit of having Extension involved. Now you're here helping get the word out and bringing your knowledge to help grow this Foothills brand. So we’re creating all these partnerships and that’s what's going to make the Foothills work. It's not just Highland Mountain that’s involved. It's getting everybody involved – all the skill sets and all the interested parties. Every business owner in town is super busy, so we need to collaborate in order to get this done, realistically. That's where Extension can play a huge role in helping us, with the knowledge that you bring from working with communities.
J: It seems like a common thread between Highland’s origins and what Foothills Foundation hopes to do is that there's a recognition of existing assets paired with an understanding of how to translate them to best serve the next generation. Do you think more people are starting to view this region through a lens of new possibilities?
M: Yeah, absolutely. In 2006, I would go downtown and nobody had any idea what we were doing. In 2006, Highland had 1,600 rider visits. And last year, we did 43,500 rider visits. So there are a lot more bikes in town and cars with bikes on racks. People obviously recognize that. This has been the natural progression. But I don't think we have even nearly peaked yet. The potential here is quite big.
J: In thinking about the upcoming Outdoor Recreation Summit, it seems like this is an exciting moment in the project – a chance to finally share with the public this vision that's been brewing for the last couple of years. What are the main goals of this event, and who are you hoping to engage?
M: There are plenty of people, like my team at Highland, who already get the Foothills mission – they are living it and breathing it every day. The people that need to know about Foothills now are the stakeholders: landowners, the public, people in town – Northfield, Tilton, Franklin, all around. So, the goal is to bring awareness to what we're doing, why we're doing it, and why this is good for this community. Along with the summit, there'll be a survey that'll be sent out to the community. At the summit, we’ll have poster boards with all the information, and you can go from station to station learning about Foothills, our mission, and what it is we're trying to do for the community.
J: While the Foothills project has arisen largely from a community of passionate mountain bikers, it strives to engage a broader range of the public – locals as well as visitors; experienced bikers as well as beginners or families, or other types of recreationists. And then it's also aiming to connect businesses, whether it's farms, or lodging options, or breweries. Since you're very entrenched in the mountain biking world, what strategies have helped you to see this project within a bigger picture?
M: There are all kinds of recreation opportunities in the area, summer and winter. Obviously, we have strengths in mountain biking and in building trails. But, now a really cool thing is happening in Franklin, where they're building their whitewater park. Ideally, in phase one, our goal is to connect those two recreation-based economic drivers. And then from that, create a multi-use trail system, for mountain biking as well as hiking and horseback riding. And that is where the survey comes in. What do people in the community really want?
J: When you say “connect,” it’s both literal and figurative – the idea of building trails that physically connect key attractions, and also the standpoint of getting people to think of this area as more of a destination region, understanding that these different attractions are all part of the same mission of maximizing amenities and improving quality of life. The foundation seems to be deeply grounded in the notion that "a rising tide lifts all boats.” I think that's so important for rural development, especially if we're talking about tourism and recreation, but also issues like workforce retention. You're in an interesting position, because you run this for-profit business, and you have another business helping other communities build mountain bike trails. I'm curious to hear about your perspective on being collaborative versus competitive.
M: Yeah, you know, we're helping Loon Mountain, which is only 45 minutes north. We’re trying to help them build the most successful bike park they could possibly have, because they're going to get more people into the sport. If a customer shows up and doesn't have a good experience, they're not coming back to this sport. So are we shooting ourselves in the foot by creating a competitor? Yeah, I guess you could say that. But if we don't, we don't have an industry.
So, it's the same with the Foothills. Coming up I-93, it's really easy access from Boston. People can come in and out of here, day-trip it. And these are outdoor, wholesome families – younger families that could potentially buy homes in the area and support the economy. The more we can help build that, it's going to benefit everybody. Even if they don't come to Highland, we don't care. Because they're going to see this area, this recreation area. They might have a family member that might want to come to one of our camps. A whitewater family might come check out Highland, and mountain bikers could be checking out the whitewater piece. It's just going to feed off itself.
J: I grew up not too far away from Northfield, but, like many, moved out west after high school, seeking adventure. Over the years I heard more and more about outdoor recreation opportunities expanding in the state. Upon moving back to this region, my expectations were exceeded. How do you think the momentum here fits into the bigger picture of tourism in New Hampshire? Does it feel like New Hampshire is finally “on the map” for outdoor recreation, or is it still missing some elements? If so, what do you think needs to happen for it to really become a premier destination?
M: I think the ski industry has definitely made its mark on New Hampshire over the years, and now what we're doing with mountain biking is growing at a rapid pace. With the Winnipesaukee and Pemigewasset rivers, what we've got here in terms of natural resources is just amazing, combined with an old mill town. This area is potentially a recreation Mecca. We already have a number of trail systems – Franklin Falls; Veterans Memorial Ski Area where they're building mountain bike trails now; there's a trail system in Hill called Page Hill that could eventually link into this. There's the Northern Rail Trail, the main vein system that links into the Winnipesaukee River Trail that eventually will link in and continue on through Belmont and into the WOW Trail in Laconia. There are all these trail systems, so the ultimate goal is to link them all together and utilize the main veins, the snowmobile trails and the rail trail systems. Link them all together into one big, beautiful network of recreation. As we continue to create that next mile of trail, that'll bring in the next round of people. And before you know it, you have these quaint, quintessential New England towns with all kinds of businesses that support recreation and the economy.
J: My last question: for anyone reading this who is inspired by your Highland Mountain story or the Foothills project and has similar dreams or ambitions, what advice would you give them?
I heard a similar question asked on a podcast and the answer was something that I really believe in: Don't cheat. Be good to people. Don't lie. Be honest with yourself. I often ask myself, “is this the right way to do this?” You can get so absorbed in the things you're doing, so just take a little time out. It really just gets back to just being true to everybody and honest with yourself.
Also, have a good plan to get the community on board, and learn what people really want. You're never going to get 100% of people, but if you can get the majority, then that's a big part of the battle. Then create your plan. In the case of Foothills, we're working with the SE Group, who are recreation planners, and we’re utilizing their expertise. We’re looking at all the potential issues that we could run into and addressing them early on. That’s part of the summit event, too. You have to be concerned with parking spaces, traffic flows, dogs... If you don't consider all of these parts, then you're going to have broken pieces down the road. There's always going to be a little mess-up here and there – that's all part of growing. But by having a good plan you can avoid as many of the mistakes as possible. And you address any issues as soon as you can. You get back to the landowner right away, or the business owner, or the town, whoever it is you're dealing with.
J: Right. Show that you're being diligent and taking concerns seriously. Any other thoughts to share?
M: I am just really excited about this project and what this area is going to be like in the next five or ten years. Also, this is probably said again and again, but I think about opioids and the drug problems that we have town to town. If we can reach some of these younger people, that ability to get them early enough is so important. If outdoor recreation can provide new opportunities and be enough to change someone’s path, that’s a huge win for the area! In general, there’s an opportunity now for developing more trails, parks and facilities because there are so many more people getting into recreation or getting into the outdoors. They’re attracted by the physical, social, and mental health benefits that come with recreating outside. We need to continue to ride that wave and expand on it.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photo credit: Highland Mountain Bike Park.
The Foothills Foundation wants your input about outdoor recreation development in the Northfield/Tilton area! Please join the foundation at Highland Mountain Bike Park from 5 - 8 pm on September 29th. No registration needed.
For more information:
Foothills Foundation: https://www.foothillsnh.com
Highland Mountain Bike Park: https://www.highlandmountain.com/
UNH Extension Tourism & Outdoor Recreation: https://extension.unh.edu/economic-development/tourism-outdoor-recreation