After six years, the end is in sight: construction is underway for The Loppet Foundation’s Trailhead.
The Trailhead is an ambitious project to improve skiing infrastructure at Theodore Wirth Regional Park in Minneapolis, Minn. The year-round facility will feature a strength-and-conditioning area, a bike-and-ski rental shop, locker room, and food service. Outdoor amenities include a tubing hill and a snowboarding hill along with improvements to Wirth’s snowmaking system.
“It’s a project we’ve been working on a long time,” John Munger, the Loppet Foundation’s executive director, told FasterSkier on the phone in mid-May.
Earthmoving for The Trailhead officially began in early June, and Munger said the goal was to have the building ready by Jan. 15, 2018, just in time for the Masters World Cup Jan. 19-26 at Wirth Park. Winning the World Masters bid added urgency to the project, and it’s given The Loppet Foundation an eye for future major nordic competitions.
“We would like to bring in events like Junior Nationals, senior nationals and maybe even a World Cup,” Munger said.
Brian Gregg, a 2014 Olympian and one of the highest-profile athletes associated with the Loppet Foundation’s race program, Loppet Nordic Racing (LNR), lives next to Wirth Park with his wife Caitlin (LNR’s other top racer).
“We’re really excited about The Trailhead. It’s been a long time coming,” Gregg said in a recent phone interview for Truckee, Calif., where he was leading an LNR training camp with Caitlin. “The Loppet Foundation has really brought life back to the park. It’s really cool to see that grow.”
Originally from Washington state, Brian Gregg has lived in Minneapolis since 2011. Caitlin, a 2010 Olympian who was born in New York City and went to high school in Vermont, moved to the Twin Cities after graduating from Northern Michigan University in 2002.
“One big goal for us as elite athletes, our job isn’t just to go race for ourselves, it’s to represent our whole club,” Caitlin said of their commitment to LNR and their California volume camp with LNR collegiate skiers. “One thing we’ve learned, the best way to push yourself isn’t to bring athletes in from outside, it’s to bring the athletes around you up to your level. We’ve really taken that approach for a number of years, and now these kids can train with us. It’s awesome, I’m really excited.”
Growing with the times
Up until now, skiers at Wirth Park have used a 1920s-era building as a lodge. But that building can’t cope when some 600 to 800 hundred skiers and their coaches swoop in for a high school race. Golfers will continue to use the original building after the Trailhead is complete.
The entire project, dubbed The Trailhead Capital Campaign, is expected to cost $11.6 million dollars, of which $9.6 million is earmarked for the building and other physical improvements to Wirth’s skiing infrastructure (such as additional snowmaking equipment and trail improvements). The park currently has several International Ski Federation (FIS) homologated race loops, spanning from 5 kilometers to sprint-distance (roughly 1 k) long. In total, Wirth includes 23 k of trails, 7.5 k of which will have snowmaking for 2018.
Beyond the $9.6 million the Foundation is looking to raise (and is currently about $370,000 short of), another $2 million dollars was budgeted for programming (e.g. youth scholarships). Approximately $4.5 million of the total amount was to be raised privately, while the rest of the balance was expected to be covered by municipal, Hennepin County, state, and federal funding.
In May, Munger explained that the Foundation was in need of $250,000 to break ground. In just two weeks, it raised that amount.
“We had a cash crunch and needed that money in order to make it happen,” he said. “… It was very energizing and heartening to see the community step up like that.”
Was raising the money more or less difficult than expected?
“It’s hard to have expectations when you’ve never done something before,” Munger said.
While the project has been in the works for the last six or seven years, Munger characterized the Trailhead’s cost as a “moving target” as costs have increased over time. He described donations ranging from individuals and foundations contributing between $10,000 to $50,000, as well as many more modest grassroots donations. Munger credited the Pohlad Family Foundation with the single largest donation of $1 million dollars.
The Greggs have pushed for the cause, too.
“We’ve been actively involved [in fundraising] any time we’ve been home,” Caitlin said.
At 759 acres, Wirth is almost as big as New York City’s Central Park and serves a variety of constituencies. In addition to skiing, there are two golf courses, a disc golf course, mountain-bike trails and gardens. When master planning for the park began around 2010, the community didn’t know what to make of the Loppet Foundation’s ideas.
“The [Minneapolis Parks and Rec] Board was a reluctant partner for years,” Munger said. “They weren’t quite sure they wanted to trust a nonprofit or private to come in and do this kind of investment. They weren’t sure we would come through in the end.”
The golf community also wasn’t thrilled with the idea of a trail-development proposal to relocate three golf-course holes.
Now, “The park board is excited, we’re excited,” Munger explained. “That’s been the really dramatic piece. The whole community is excited about this now.”
He added that the park board has “always supported our mission, but I think it’s a matter of trust.”
To start, the Loppet Foundation did a thorough job of getting various municipal approvals. The Foundation’s gold-level club certification from U.S. Ski & Snowboard was an important endorsement. U.S. Ski & Snowboard has gold, silver and bronze level certifications for clubs that benchmark best practices in coaching, community outreach, and regular board meetings, among other criteria.
“Once we started to raise significant funds, [the park board] saw we were serious about this,” Munger said. “When we did the hard work with them of putting the agreements together, that was really significant. ‘This is an organization that does things right, that makes the park board look good to the world and helps deliver great services to the public through our partnership.’ So it’s been a long process, but that’s how we got there.”
“The public-private partnership between Minneapolis Parks and Rec Board and the Loppet Foundation is pretty unique,” Brian Gregg explained. “I think we’re one of the first public-private partnerships like that in the city.”
The upcoming Masters World Cup won’t be Wirth’s first big event, but it does put Minneapolis on the international stage for cross-country skiing. Wirth hosted 2011 Junior Nationals and SuperTour races in 2010, 2011 and 2013. Brian won his first SuperTour there in 2010.
“A big part of the Loppet Foundation is reaching out to the community of north Minneapolis, which is where Wirth Park is located,” he explained. “It’s really great to see a lot of kids from north Minneapolis being able to take advantage of the Loppet programming.”
The programming includes youth scholarships for training camps and activities.
“I think that service side of the Loppet Foundation is one of the most incredible parts about the foundation,” Brian added.
Caitlin explained that the Foundation has started ski teams in middle schools across north Minneapolis by hiring coaches, acquiring equipment and finding ways to engage kids in healthy lifestyles.
“Brian and I are extremely proud,” Caitlin said. “… Our proudest moment is what the Foundation has done for the community at large.”
The Trailhead isn’t just for winter, either. In the summer, it will be a home base for mountain biking, trail running and orienteering.
“We’re heavily invested in skiing in the winter, but there’s outdoor activity throughout the year,” Munger explained.
One of Brian’s favorite Foundation programs is Adventure Kids, a series of weeklong summer day camps for kids ages 9 to 13. It was previously run with “popup tents and picnic tables,” he said, and if there was a thunderstorm, the kids took cover under a bridge. When the Trailhead opens, they’ll have a shelter.
“There really is no offseason for us,” Munger said.