Off the back of a fresh fundraising announcement, we caught up with Martin Byers at Gravitate North East to find out where the project is at.

Gravitate North East aims to bring an adventure park, including a trail centre to Durris Forest in Aberdeenshire, and their latest plans are to raise £150,000 to fund the planning stage of the project.

Pete caught up with Martin Byers to find out where the project is at and what’s next.

Gravitate North East have announced a fundraiser for the next stage of this project, can you bring us up to speed on what’s gone on to this point?

Gravitate North East was formed way back in 2015 by a bunch of keen mountain bikers who were frustrated by the lack of dedicated purpose-built facilities in the Aberdeen region. We realised that if we wanted something done, we’d have to do it ourselves. So, we decided to get ourselves organised.

Back then we were called NETCO (North East Trail Centre Organisation) and we set ourselves up as a single tier SCIO (Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation). Once that was done, we were official. We opened a bank account, appointed a board of trustees and set up a committee.

The next key thing for us to do was select a site to build our facility on. We scoured the whole of North East Scotland for potential suitable locations, assessing around 40 in total. We then carried out our own assessment of these sites to narrow it down to a final 5 before calling in the experts to do the final selection.

It was important to us that final site selection was done by an independent 3rd party so that we could demonstrate complete impartiality in the decision. We raised funds to hire an adventure sports and tourism consultant and they carried out a feasibility study on our behalf.

In addition to selecting the preferred location, Durris Forest, the study also threw up a couple of pretty interesting things. It told us that if we wanted the project to be financially viable, we’d need to move more towards the bike park model rather than a trail centre. It also told us that we’d need to add in some additional complimentary adventure sports activities to boost visitor numbers.

It was at this point that we decided to re-brand. We were no longer a trial centre or purely MTB project, so the name NETCO just didn’t work anymore. After a very long mind mapping and word association session, we came up with the name Gravitate North East.

Then, with some funding from Scottish Cycling, we appointed the Robert Gordon University Gatehouse Design Studio to develop our new brand and create our website.

Another key thing we did around the same time as our re-brand was restructure the charity. We changed from a single tier to a two tier SCIO. This means that we now have a membership structure which is essential for demonstrating community representation. This was done to get us ready for CATS (Community Asset Transfer Scheme).

CATS is the mechanism we will use to acquire the land from Forestry and Land Scotland. To be eligible for CATS, an organisation must be able to demonstrate community support and community representation, hence, the need for the two tier structure. We currently have around 150 members.

Somewhere in amongst all that happening I decided to quit my oil and gas job and make a go of this thing full time. Around the middle of this year we got sorted out so that the charity could employ me 3 days a week to progress the project. It’s made a huge difference to what we’ve been able to achieve so hopefully we can increase that to 4 or 5 days per week next year (and I can stop fitting kitchens in my limited spare time). I’ve also managed to bag a desk in the office at Visit Aberdeenshire which has been a massive help.

Much of 2019 has been about rolling out our new brand, sorting out our new legal structure and establishing our member base. This brings us to where we are now which is our biggest challenge to date…. Raising £150,000.

How do you plan to raise the £150,000 target?

We’ve had a pretty tough time with grant applications recently, so we wanted to create a fundraising strategy that was largely grant free. It’s also difficult to get after a lot of grant funds when you don’t have planning permission in place.

The largest part of the overall target will come from investors. We’re offering three different investment packages in limited numbers which come with associated benefits. We’ve branded these three different level packages as Carbon Fibre, Polished Titanium and Raw Alloy. We also expect to achieve a significant amount of funding from corporate investors who don’t necessarily expect any direct benefits in return.

The next level of funding will come from our own supporters becoming fundraisers themselves. People are always taking on personal challenges, so we are encouraging them to turn their adventures and activities into fundraising opportunities. Our top fundraisers will receive imitations to our VIP pre-opening event as well as some cool exclusive Gravitate merchandise.

Merida Big.Trailtea

We also expect to receive a reasonable level of funds from straight forward donations, raffles, auctions and our new ‘Gravitate Gold’ sticker badge campaign. The idea behind this initiative is simple. Make a £10 donation and we give you a gold mountain diamond sticker to display as a badge of honour.

It’s a cool and easy way to let people know that you have given support to your local MTB charity. You can then post images of your badge out in the wild on your social media using the hashtag #gravitategold. We’ll then share it to show the world how awesome our supporters are.

What will happen when you have reached that target?

We’ll spend it.

Actually, we’ll spend it as we raise it. It’s not like we are waiting for the entire £150,000 to land before we start any work. The figure is more a reflection of our running costs for the year which will take us to where we want to be by the end of 2020. It will be used to fund project management costs, community engagement, legal costs for lease negotiations, planning study coordination and delivery, community consultation and the planning application fee.

Photo by Martin Kennedy.

How can people who want to support the project get involved either physically or financially?

Support is always appreciated in any form. The best way to support is to become a member and join one of our sub-committees. Four sub-committees were set up this year to focus on fundraising, marketing, events and community.

If we can get more people involved and spread the load across more members of the local MTB community, we’ll end up with an epic community led bike park much sooner. People can find out about membership by visiting the members page on our website.

Direct donation to our 2020 fundraising campaign are also welcome. You can donate via our Virgin Money Giving page.

The other way to help, as mentioned earlier, is to become a fundraiser yourself. People should feel fee to get in touch with us if they’d like to discuss, or they could just go ahead and start their own fundraiser through our Virgin Money Giving campaign page.

Photo by Trev Worsey.

What’s going on behind the scenes on the ground at Durris Forest while this is taking place?

We’ve carried out site surveys and just last week, commissioned a consultancy to create a set of detailed CAD drawing suitable for the planning process. Our feasibility study consultants also took several core samples from the ground and had them analysed in the lab.

This was to assess the suitability of the subsoil for sustaining trails. The lab results tell us that the subsoil is predominantly pink granite… that’s the good stuff which drains well and can handle lots of traffic. So good news there.

We also had James Foster from Revolution Bike Park up for a look about the site. He was pretty stoked on the potential that he saw. It would be great to have a true trail craftsman like James design and build a couple of our trials. In that same vein, we’ve also been speaking to Claudio Caluori, Rowan Sorrell and Hans Rey… we’re not messing about.

However, if you were to take a ride around Durris Forest just now, you wouldn’t see any evidence on the ground of what Gravitate have planned for the future. There are a few decent, hand cut trails on the two hills there, but they do suffer badly from the wet. The area is predominantly a commercial timber forest and will stay that way until we take over.

How much red tape do you have to cut through during this next phase?

CATS and Planning are the two big things in front of us just now. To apply for planning permission, we first have to conduct a number of studies on the ground, these are; environmental, archaeology, historic environment, visual impact, roads and drainage.

We have hired a planning coordinator to pull together and deliver all these studies, we expect the first one, environmental, to start around March next year. Once all the studies are complete, we’ll then be able to apply for planning permission in principal.

For the CATS process, we will be able to use much of the information gathered during the planning studies. In addition to this we’ll need to create a strong case to demonstrate that our structure and governance fulfils the required eligibility criteria and that we have a suitable amount of community support, both from the mountain biking community and the local geographic community around Durris.

How long do you expect the construction phase to take?

That a tricky one. Construction is of course dependant of obtaining planning permission, a successful CATS application and raising the required funds. But with all being well, we’d hope that construction would take around 2–3 years.

Our plan is to break construction down into two key phases. The first phase will create a family friendly mountain bike and adventure sports destination with around half of the planned MTB trails and vehicle uplift. Phase two will see the installation of a chairlift and additional gravity related activities such as ziplines and a mountain luge. We’ll also build the second half of the MTB trails during phase two.

You can check out everything Gravitate North East related over on their website here.