FREEMAN TOWNSHIP — For years, land owned by Spencer Lee’s family in Franklin County sat untouched.

Then Lee and his father, Peter, decided to do something about it, tapping into their passion for mountain biking and the growing popularity of the sport in the area.

In July, the father-son team opened the Freeman Ridge Bike Park, a first-of-its-kind bike park in Franklin County offering about 4 miles of private trails.

The development builds on an existing network of about 80 miles of mountain bike trails in nearby Carrabassett Valley and efforts in Kingfield to connect the communities. Those involved and others in the area say they’re hopeful the investments will pay off in tourism and economic development.

“Mountain biking is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country, and there’s tremendous opportunity,” said Charlie Woodworth, executive director of the Greater Franklin Development Council. “We do a great job with alpine skiing and snowmobiling. This is something we can do in the summer. It’s an add-on to the fishing, paddling and other traditional uses.”

The Lees’ bike park, which they started with the help of a $15,000 grant from Franklin County’s tax-increment financing – or TIF – program, attracts about 50 percent locals and 50 percent visitors.

‘AT THE GATEWAY’

After growing up in Yarmouth and attending the University of Vermont, Spencer Lee helped build bike trails for the state of Alaska and lived in Seattle for two years, an area at the forefront globally for mountain biking.

But he said Maine also has potential with its vast areas of undeveloped woods and its position as an already established outdoors destination.

“What we’re trying to do is offer people, if they come to Carrabassett for a day, an option to extend their stay here,” said Lee, who also works for the town of Carrabassett Valley’s trail crew and is on the board of directors of the Carrabassett Region chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association.

Just down the road are the Kingfield Trail Builders, who started building bike trails two years ago with the hopes of connecting the Lees’ park in Freeman Township with the existing network in Carrabassett.

They’ll have just about 2 miles when they’re done with the project, but Polly MacMichael, chairwoman of the group, said they’re hoping the work will help slow traffic in downtown Kingfield and add to the quality of life.

“There are a lot of trails in Carrabassett Valley, and we’re sort of at the gateway to that whole recreation area,” she said.

MORE SOURCES OF BUSINESS

Both efforts are building on an existing network of trails in Carrabassett Valley, the development of which took off around 2010 with the formation of a local chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association.

While trails always existed in Carrabassett Valley, the group began working with the nonprofit Maine Huts & Trails and the town of Carrabassett Valley to add to and upgrade existing trails.

David Hughes, founding president of the Carrabassett Region chapter and a current member of the board of directors, said the popularity and use of the trails has expanded at an exponential pace over the last eight years.

He described how in 2010, it was possible to leave for a ride from the Sugarloaf Outdoors Center and not see anyone the whole weekend. While that quiet experience is still possible, it’s more likely on backcountry trails now.

More people are coming to the area to enjoy biking in the winter and over the summer the 100-kilometer Carrabassett Backcountry Challenge mountain bike race attracted more than 500 riders, about 75 more than in 2017.

“Anything they do in Kingfield will just build on the energy of what’s happening in Carrabassett Valley, Farmington and other places,” Hughes said. “The pie just gets bigger.”

Hughes said the growth of trails has added to the local economy – whether it’s by attracting more people with second homes to stay through the warmer months rather than just during ski season, the addition of a new bike shop at Sugarloaf, or added local business.

“My customer base forever and ever has been skiers and Sugarloafers,” said John Beaupre, a selectman in Carrabassett Valley and owner of a handful of small grocery stores there and in Kingfield. “Now people are buying houses strictly for the mountain biking rather than the skiing. It’s cool. It’s a good source of secondary business for us.”

At the Freeman Ridge Bike Park, Spencer Lee said he hopes to add up to 8 to 10 miles of trails total over the next few years.

“As an economic driver, I think the goal is to bring people here to ride and to come to this part of Maine and be tourists,” he said. “Mountain biking is growing here right now, and it will continue to grow because of the efforts being put in by different organizations.”