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Home Current Bikes on the cheap: Free Cycles' bikes are now rentals; more changes may be needed
Bikes on the cheap: Free Cycles' bikes are now rentals; more changes may be needed

October 17, 2008

By MARK PAGE for the Missoulian

Free Cycles wants to grow. It needs to grow.

But to maintain its identity as a free bike shop, the nonprofit must find a consistent way to raise money instead of relying so heavily on a simple donation jar at the front of the shop. The shop is surviving month to month, so if donations went down, it wouldn't open.

“It's never been zero,” said owner Bob Giordano. “But it's always been we only have a couple months' worth of income.”

It's been this way for 12 years now, despite booming business. The shop saw about 10,000 visitors over the past year, said Giordano. That's a 30 percent increase from the previous year.

More than 800 bikes were given away this past year, compared to 4,400 over its 12-year life.

Volunteer Erica Dossa has been out of town for a while, but came back to a much busier shop.

“Every time I've come in, there's been lots of people,” she said. Free Cycles Shop- allens

On Thursday, Giordano held a meeting with several of the volunteers to brainstorm ideas for Free Cycles' future

Free Cycles began in 1996 by putting “green bikes” on street corners for community use, as is done in Portland, Ore. It grew into a full-service bike shop and junkyard, where people can come build free bikes in exchange for volunteering and taking bike safety classes offered at the shop.

Recently, Free Cycles has gone through some changes. For the first time, there is a paid shop coordinator and the free “green bikes” are now rentals, costing $1 per day, $5 per week and $15 per month.

“I'd like to see this shop not so much depending on the donation jar,” said Oscar Morales, the new shop coordinator, but “to have some other sources of revenue.”

Some volunteers aren't so psyched about the changes, worrying the place might turn into a normal business.

“Based on how this shop was started, I don't necessarily agree with having a paid coordinator,” said volunteer Steven Shorzman. He said he liked the idea of rental bikes, as long as they are offered on a sliding scale.

Change is needed, though, in order to stay open more than 20 hours a week, as well as offering new programs such as youth bike-building classes or camps, Giordano said. Ideas include letter-writing, grant applications and new plans to raise money.

“We need to look to the next step to have enough money to better serve the community,” Morales said. “Relying on donations isn't going to give us enough money to step in and make changes in the community.”

New fundraising programs may include a bike-leasing arrangement providing Missoula businesses with two leased bikes each for their employees to use. Ideally, Giordano said, the plan would include 100 businesses.

Eventually, he wants to get a citywide bike checkout system in place, similar to those in some European cities such as Paris. The demand is there, he said - now he just needs to figure out the logistics.

Other ideas revolve around making products to sell, such as chairs and tables made from old bike parts.

As the future of Free Cycles was being discussed, volunteer Evan Holmstrom brought up some examples of similar shops in other cities.

He described The Hub in Bellingham, Wash., as “Free Cycles in 10 years.” The Hub started just like Free Cycles, but eventually began offering for-pay services, like a $5 per hour charge to use the shop, he said. Despite recent changes at Free Cycles, Holmstrom said the shop shouldn't and doesn't have to move in that direction.

“Having someone here that's regular, that's good,” Holmstrom said referring to Morales' position, “as long as someone doesn't have to come in the door and throw down three bucks.”

One thing all could agree on is the merits of a big fundraising party at the shop on Friday, Oct 25. There will be bands, beer and a bike relay, all free. In the spirit of Free Cycles, volunteers didn't want to make people pay, just ask them for donations.

The “free” in Free Cycles isn't all that defines its identity, Giordano said, despite it being the focus of concerns.

“It definitely has an identity of helping people with bikes.” he said. “We're maintaining our mission if we're doing that.”

Giordano doesn't want to change the free services, but wants to make sure people value them.

“Some feel that if something is free it has less value,” he said.

Figuring out how to make sure people value the shop enough to support it is how Giordano will shape Free Cycles' future.

“Our future depends on how we're doing today,” he said. “How things are going today.”