Dirt School: Digging Into the Details

October 30, 2023

Anne Grofvert, LMB’s 2023 Trailblazer of the Year award winner and founder of Dirt School skills course and bicycle playground at Burchfield County Park, took the time to answer some questions and share insight on what it takes to make a vision like the Dirt School a reality as well as shed light on how those interested can accomplish something like Dirt School in their own communities.

Having dedicated decades of time, energy, and commitment to make cycling fun, safe, and inclusive for everyone, Anne has logged more than 3,500 hours in service to Mid-Michigan trails over the last 30 years. She is not only a skilled cyclist and certified coach, she has served as the Mid-Michigan Mountain Biking Association (MMMBA) treasurer, worked as volunteer trail coordinator for 15+ years, and has led weekly, inclusive group rides as well as a women’s intro to MTB series. She now serves on LMB’s MMBA workgroup.

How and when did you first get into biking? What kind of biking do you enjoy most?

I didn’t really become an active rider until I moved to Lansing when I started to ride with the Tri-County Bicycle Association (TCBA). My first mountain bike, a 1983 Trek 850, is what really fueled my biking passion. I loved riding off road and later added cyclocross racing to that. Today, my favorite is riding to work or in the woods. Alternatively, I’ll also ride gravel roads.

You created the Dirt School skills park for kids and beginner riders to learn and strengthen their MTB skills. What inspired this idea? What makes Dirt School special?

There’s a kid-focused skills area in Ohio called Gnomewood. Seeing this in 2018 inspired me to champion the idea of something similar in our area. It would provide a gateway to our trails, get people excited about biking, offer a convenient place to learn skills, and it was also a way to build and to sustain the MMMBA long term by bringing more people to the sport and organization.

We want more people outside and on trails, hopefully that will encourage more physical activity especially among kids who [spend] many hours a day on screens. It would create a fun and inclusive community. Beginners can be intimidated on trails not knowing what they’ll encounter and a skills park provides a space to help develop healthy, resilient, and confident kids. Healthy kids build healthy communities.

Dirt School, located at Ingham County’s Burchfield Park in Holt has a couple of unique attributes. It is easily accessible, has ample parking, and all other park amenities are close by. The Bicycle Playground area is easy for a parent or guardian to be nearby. All of this provides riders an opportunity to develop confidence before heading out onto the 12-miles of signed mountain bike trails within the park. It’s a one stop riding opportunity for riders of all levels and ages. There are loaner bikes an helmets for those that need them when visiting Dirt School. The park also has a program in place with CATA so that people who need transportation to the park can obtain that as well!

There may be readers who are interested in learning how to start something like Dirt School in their own community. What went into making it happen?

The process of how this all came together was one of learning along the way.

I was on the MMMBA board and we started to think about what/where/how. So what is Dirt School and how do we accomplish this? [We’ll] build a mountain bike playground and skills course which includes a lot of things we ride every day when we ride an MMMBA trail. It will serve this up in non-intimidating, bite-sized pieces that also look like a lot of fun. After gaining confidence and becoming comfortable riding at Dirt School, they’ll [riders will] be ready for our trails.

Late 2018, we began more serious discussions about a project at [MMMBA] board meetings. During 2019 we started working on what it could look like, costs, and so on. In early 2020, Teresa DeLisle, Nicole Cottom and I worked through more details of skills and features and wrote some early grants. Quickly we learned we were going to need to have a design done to help communicate to land managers and grantors what this would look like. The scope of the project grew and we pivoted to discussing a larger and more visible project. Finally after discussions with the land manager and park director, Burchfield County Park became the location.

We wanted this project to serve as a gateway, so building it in close proximity to one of our existing trails was an important criteria. We wanted a location that would expose people who were unfamiliar with the sport to the trails. We discussed the project in great depth with the land managers for West Lansing Trail and Burchfield. Working with them we developed materials for meetings and discussions with their boards. A decision was made to move forward with Tim Buckley and Tim Morgan from Ingham County Parks.

Once we had a site selected, we then had to find partners to design and build Dirt School itself. We had already visited and researched similar successful projects. Progressive Bike Ramps (PBR) was selected based on their experience, portfolio, and extensive work they’ve done in parks in Michigan, around the country, and globally.

It was a process going back and forth with PBR outlining what our ideas and goals were, how it would work on the site and developing concepts.  We settled on a final concept and specifications for the project.

Concurrent with that, we worked on developing the project identity, such as the Dirt School logo and the website.

Additionally during two trail days, volunteers logged 300 hours clearing the deadfall and making the area “trail ready.” With the site cleared and a design completed, we were then ready to begin installation. Even with Dirt School being built with commercial materials, high grade lumber, and coated steel, we have funding in place for eventual maintenance that will be needed. Ingham County’s Burchfield Park has committed to being an active long-term partner in this project.

As the vision for this project grew, the importance of securing partners did as well. With a budget nearing $200,000 (we eventually secured closer to $225k). Multiple grants were written and submitted. Most of those early ones [grants] were unsuccessful. Lessons were learned about how to approach funders and more importantly how to position this project to those funders as a high-impact community asset.

You don’t do a project like this without partnerships. In addition to grants, the MMMBA, LMB, DALMAC, and generous individuals and foundations helped fund it. Organizations like Capital Youth Cycling (now Adventure Team Lansing) helped with expertise in working with kids, programming, and recruitment. Of course the partnership with the Ingham County Burchfield Park, which is a staffed park, is also crucial being that staff will be available to work with Dirt School in a number of ways.

Did you run into any major obstacles you had to overcome?

There were some delays with COVID, county and state permitting taking longer than usual, and getting contracts through legal review. This was a huge learning experience about all of the many steps involved and how many different “pieces” of this project had to go through park boards, commissions, and so on.

For example, there was a generous grant from the Capital Region Community Foundation (1/1 match from donors). We learned how for any grant, funder updates are an important part of your next ask. You’re laying the groundwork for the next proposal.

What would you tell someone interested in accomplishing a project like Dirt School in their own communities?

Never be afraid to think big. The final project has received a Michigan Health and Human services grant. Dirt School has also received a design award from M Parks. Both awards recognize the attributes to health and fitness at our local parks.

Categorised in: