An organization that specializes in giving new life to old bikes has gone through a refurbishment of its own in the past 15 months. From new retail shop space to new partnerships and employees, WashCo Bikes is rolling in many directions since hiring Joe Kurmaskie as its first paid executive director last year.
I rode out to downtown Hillsboro this week to check out their headquarters and hear the latest from Kurmaskie. Tucked just off Main Street inside two freshly-painted storefronts, WashCo Bikes was abuzz with activity. Sales Manager Mike Patnude was helping a customer with test rides and Dirk Pauwels (son of Portland bike racing pioneer Franz Pauwels) was busy working on bikes.
As I talked to Kurmaskie on the sidewalk out front, he stopped mid-sentence to help someone through the front door.
Kurmaskie, known to many as the “Metal Cowboy” from his speaking gigs and series of humorous books, didn’t want to miss an opportunity to make a connection. While I was there he told everyone that came in about the organization’s programs, asked if they wanted to volunteer, and asked them to become a member. Kurmaskie’s trademark energy and promotional verve seem to suit him well in this new role.
“When I got here, I told them I’m not just going to fill a chair,” Kurmaskie said, “I’m going to get a lot louder. And we’re making some waves.”
Formerly known as the Washington County Bicycle Transportation Coalition, WashCo Bikes was founded as a nonprofit in 2005. Before hiring Kurmaskie, the organization spent seven years in “survival mode” sustaining itself with volunteers and a few small events. Citing “much opportunity for future growth” and a desire to take the organization to the next level, the WashCo Bikes board hired Kurmaskie in July 2018.
“We’re like the Community Cycling Center, The Street Trust and Bike Loud PDX all wrapped up into one,” he told me as we walked over to a defunct bank on Main Street. When Kurmaskie learned hundreds of donated used bikes were being stored in a church and just gathering dust (and an $800 a month storage fee), Kurmaskie negotiated a lower-priced deal with the bank building owners. “And these bikes aren’t stagnant,” he said, “I’m not in the business of storing bikes, I’m in the business of getting bikes into the public’s hands.”
And that’s just what WashCo Bikes has been doing.
Kurmaskie told a story about a summer camp trip to Bullwinkles. As dozens of young campers parked their bikes at a brand new rack out front, the owner came out to say how hard he fought against the new bike parking. Then after seeing 25 bikes parked in and around it, he changed his tune. “I’m gonna’ need more bike racks!” he told Kurmaskie.
These are the kind of shifts in perception Kurmaskie cherishes. Still a Portland resident, he knows the traffic culture in Washington County isn’t exactly welcoming of bicycle users. That’s something he’s trying to change, and it all starts with the shop.
“The culture out here is going in the wrong direction and the cavalry’s not coming to save the day. We’re it. It’s just us.”
— Joe Kurmaskie
With a dearth of bike shops in the county, WashCo Bikes is an oasis in the desert.
For years the shop was crammed into a small space where mounds of used parts and bikes towered floor-to-ceiling. People couldn’t get to products to buy and workers had no idea what type of inventory was available. Earlier this year they opened a new space next door that now houses a clean and organized retail shop that’s open seven days a week and has a section in the back for cheap used parts. Sales have skyrocketed ever since. The original space is now reserved for service and tune-ups as well as receiving used bikes to refurbish for donation and resale.
Beyond the shop, WashCo Bikes can be found been tabling at events throughout the county, making new connections and raising the profile of the organization and bicycling in general. Kurmaskie has joined the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce and maintains a presence at the weekly Tuesday Night Market downtown.
With the organization more stable and respected in the community, Kurmaskie is at a point where he wants to start doing more direct advocacy and political lobbying. “Why? Because we have people out here with ‘One Less Bike’ bumper stickers,” Kurmaskie said. “The culture out here is going in the wrong direction and the cavalry’s not coming to save the day. We’re it. It’s just us.”
WashCo Bikes currently has around 350 members. Kurmaskie would like to see them have 3-4,000 members, but knows it won’t happen until they jump into advocacy. One of their first forays is to bring Sunday Parkways to Washington County. Kurmaskie says he’s negotiating with the City of Portland to “franchise” their successful model and hopes to have it up and running by 2021 (if not sooner).
An open streets event will be WashCo Bikes’ first opportunity to lead conversations about prickly topics like reducing driving capacity on major streets and prohibiting parking to make room for a carfree event. Kurmaskie is no stranger to activism, but he’s aware this the confrontational and self-promoting ways of his younger days are not likely to serve him as well in his new role. “As an author, it was always about me. As an activist, I had to be confrontational,” he said. “Now I think I’m more measured and collaborative at how I go about things.”
Even with an intent to be more measured and facing a community with precious few bicycle riders, Kurmaskie says they won’t drop their bike-centric focus like The Street Trust did in 2017. “We will always and only be about bicycles. We won’t branch out,” he said. “I’ve seen that when you try to expand beyond bicycles it muddies your mission and you end up being nothing to nobody.”
The sense of urgency around this work for Kurmaskie can be boiled down to two things: his activist roots and his recent comeback from a very serious illness.
“Daylight is burning and I’m all about many hands making light work,” he said. “And I don’t care who gets credit for what… I’ve already been dead and it’s sort of liberating. It changes you.”
If WashCo Bikes’ resurgence mirrors the turnaround in Kurmaskie’s health, we’ll be hearing a lot more exciting things from them in the months and years go come.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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Tangent: Why would “Mr. Bullwinkles” fight against an, at worst, harmless, bike rack? Just to cultivate sort of a Scrooge/Montgomery Burns/Mr. Potter sort of persona? It’s weird. When you’re the “winner” the way auto culture is the “winner” in most of the USA, the worst-case attitude toward your vanquished adversaries should be something along the lines of contempt or complete absent-minded indifference. Whereas actual active opposition just seems like going way over the top. Maybe it means we truly are “taking over” just like in some people’s most fevered and paranoid fantasies? Anyway sounds like he came around eventually.
I hope Joe has success “getting loud.” There does seem to be a need for that kind of outreach & energy out here. “Still a Portland resident…” punctures my balloon a little. If property owned is “your money,” and advocacy is “your mouth,” one should endeavor to put the two things in proximity, as the saying goes. I guess on this particular day, in the mood I’m in, I can recommend WashCo for biking. On some days I wouldn’t. But in terms of living out here and doing it, I’m doing it, my household is doing it, car-free. We can get to work and the grocery store with almost 100% bike lane coverage. You just have to be ready to cover some miles, because everything’s a bit spread-out. And the surroundings are a bit different.
Glenn II, Point taken regarding the Portland address/residency. In my defense, my Portland home has a for sale sign in front and I am actively scouting for Washington County property. In the meantime , as often as possible, I use the max with my Surley long disc trucker for the multimodal commute – and as folks will attest, I take meetings in the saddle, getting people in local government and corporations seeing the projects and talking next steps from atop the bike. Also, we are very mindful that Washington County is NOT Portland. Some bike culture and infrastructure translates apples for apples but the physical, political and emotional landscape is a different animal. For example – plans for Sunday Parkways will look different than Portland’s grid streets set up. We will have trails and paths, city streets and wider arterials in the mix and we are addressing different challenges out here in a large county with small town, rural and suburban settings. We aim to be a county organization which is why we have programs expanding in Forest grove, Wilsonville, LO, Aloha and beyond. One way we are doing this is with our summer bike camp offerings. The Bullwinkles story highlights not so much combative as a business owner not seeing demand or perceived need for something until then. By bringing our campers everywhere by bike and growing these camps across the county we fill the lanes and expose people to the facts on the ground reality that bicycles are a healthy, low impact alternatives to driving for nearly everything in communities that are 5 by 5 miles long and wide, especially when a line of kids and counselors on bikes pass cars gridlocked at lights. Those bright blue and green Saddle Up Adventures shirts on bikes cue people . And the full bike rack the day the cement was dry at Bullwinkles turned the owner’s head and got him thinking that he needed more of this. We have to be loud and proud and inclusive AND also show people the economic and health benefits of the bike. To steal a phrase about being all with and for bikes, “by any means necessary.”
As a Washington County resident, this all sounds pretty exciting. I hadn’t heard about any of this, I’ll look into it more – thanks for posting the story!