The nation’s first publicly funded inner-city dirt bike park is being built in Cleveland, with hopes of redirecting the swarms of dirt bike riders illegally using city streets. Backers say the park will reduce a dangerous nuisance, and generate revenue and create jobs. Others say the money could be better spent.
YouTube video captured some Cleveland dirt bike riders, mostly young men and teens, taking to city streets on their small, fast and agile machines. Cleveland police no longer try to catch them, despite the dangers they create by speeding and doing stunts.
Forty-year-old Johnnie Burton says as a teenager he and friends would take their bikes to city parks and vacant lots to ride, only to be run off by police. So, they started riding on the streets to parks in other neighborhoods, and that ride became an activity of its own.
“After a while, people would have fun riding from one side of town to the next, a 30-minute ride on your dirt bike through traffic," Burton says. "You know, riding a street bike, that’s fun. So now you’re on a dirt bike, you can pop wheelies, you can do all these different things, that’s what they began to do. So instead of looking for a park to ride on, they just start riding their dirt bikes on the streets. And it became a rebellion initially.”
Burton, whose father and grandfather are both well- known motorcycle enthusiasts, now teaches motorcycle repair and maintenance. Cleveland officials asked him to help devise a way to get illegal riders off the streets, and he and others recommended the dirt bike park.
He says it will not draw all the illegal riders off the streets, but it will be a safe place where some can learn the proper way to ride - and maybe move into other aspects of the multi-million dollar dirt bike industry.
When he’s not driving his tow truck, James Patten, known as "Smoke," still occasionally rides his street-legal Yamaha dirt bike on Cleveland’s streets. At 31, he says hitting the streets is no longer the rebellious adventure the younger guys are engaged in.
"I mean, it’s more of a thrill thing, but I mean it’s a thing about safety too, you know what I’m saying? I mean, I’m a grown man, so me, if I ride in the streets, I take on whatever laws or whatever I do wrong, I take that on myself," Patten says. "But now we got kids growing up who want to ride or whatever, and they look up to us and they’re riding on the streets and they don’t know anything about traffic laws or right and wrong or whatever."
Patten says many young riders he knows want opportunities to get off the streets. He also believes the dirt bike park could help some of them become good enough to compete professionally.
As the park is envisioned, it would also attract sanctioned races and serve as an economic development tool. It’s being built in Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland’s eastside ward.
"I see that as an opportunity to attract investment to the neighborhood where there hasn’t been a lot,” Clevland says. “And that investment I don’t see limited to the dirt bike. Once you start bringing people into the neighborhood, how do you use that to leverage to help improve the lives of people who live in the neighborhood? The dirt bike park itself is not an amenity directed toward the neighborhood, it’s going to be a regional draw.”
And the councilwoman agrees that the park will not eliminate illegal street riding, but for the kids involved, it’s a start.
“It doesn’t matter if you build a basketball court, you got kids who are going to cause trouble instead of play basketball,” Cleveland says. “So, yeah, it’s not going to cure the whole problem. But I really believe it will go a long ways toward changing that thinking and mentality of those guys who ride on the street.”
Mike Polensek is among those on city council who have reservations about the dirt bike park. He questions the city spending $2.4 million dollars on it.
"With all the other pressing needs we have in the city, and all the existing parks, and rec centers and playgrounds that are in need of repair, how did this just surface out of the clear blue sky? It wasn’t in the five-year capital plan,” Polensek says. “And then we have a project here that is, again, supposed to be part of the cure-all for crime in our neighborhood, and yet, you know, explain to me how.”
Polensek adds that he’s not opposed to a dirt bike park, just the use of tax dollars to build it.
The city has selected a company to clean up environmental waste at the 30-acre site, and it’s in the process of find a company to do the design work and construction.