CONWAY — Town selectmen recently shelved a vote on allowing REI to hold mountain biking lessons in Whitaker Woods, saying they are apprehensive about private companies using public spaces without oversight.
REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.), a mammoth West Coast-based company that also operates REI Adventures and the REI Outdoor School, expects to hire 55 employees in North Conway.
It’s taking over the space recently vacated by Eastern Mountain Sports at 1498 White Mountain Highway in North Conway.
While the building is under renovation, REI already is offering guided outdoor experiences in the Mount Washington Valley in places where they are permitted to do so. The company, with revenue of $2.38 billion and 17 million members, is a co-op and has other locations in New England.
North Conway will be REI’s first New Hampshire location.
Conway Selectmen's Chair David Weathers, who is also a member of the conservation commission, brought the topic of REI biking in the town-owned Whitaker Woods at Tuesday's selectmen's meeting.
“I had a real concern that it would be in conflict with just the regular uses — call it the general public,” said Weathers, adding he didn’t want to see the public denied access because a private, for-profit group was taking over the space.
The conservation commission already discussed saying no to the mountain bikers a month ago, said Weathers.
REI, said Weathers, was going to have 10-12 people involved with the lessons at a time. He said an entity (later identified as REI by town officials Wednesday) wanted to charge for mountain biking lessons.
REI offered to do trail volunteer maintenance.
Town Manager Tom Holmes said mountain biking isn’t the only such proposed use of public land that’s come in recently.
Holmes said there has also been a proposal to have a day-care center meet at Whitaker Woods.
Holmes elaborated by email Wednesday.
"There was an email inquiry last year by a woman who wanted to start a nature-oriented day care, and she wanted to use Whitaker Woods," said Holmes. "She envisioned benches, rope swings, a fire circle and things like that.
"Chairman Weathers and I met with her and convinced her that it probably wasn't a good idea for Whitaker Woods."
Recreation Director John Eastman told selectmen he hasn't seen a proposal like REI's before.
Weathers said one-day events like “Bark in the Park” (an event Conway Area Humane Society used to put on at Schouler Park and then moved to Whitaker Woods and renamed Woof in the Woods this year) are a separate issue because they are allowed by permits that require insurance and such.
He said the town should know who these groups are and what they are doing.
Special event permits are limited to 14 days, and selectmen can deny applications, said Holmes.
Holmes explained there is a permit process for temporary special events but not for ongoing activities “every single week.” There’s also an arrangement the town has with the livery companies for use of the First Bridge kayak launch facility. In that agreement the livery companies pay the town a fee. There is also a public private partnership with MVW Ski Touring.
Holmes added if the town allows one group to use the woods for classes, it has to allow them all.
Selectman Carl Thibodeau asked how the town could prevent people from getting together and biking.
“This is public land,” said Thibodeau.
Holmes said people can’t have events on public land for commercial purposes without a special event permit and that selectmen would enforce it by imposing fines though their police powers.
Weathers suggested the selectmen could form a subcommittee to look at private use of public spaces.
Selectman Mary Carey Seavey said Weathers was right to be concerned and Selectman Steve Porter said he wouldn't want a private group to shut down the woods to everyone else.
Weathers said he didn’t think the biking group intended to close the woods but he thought they may expand in the future and that could crowd out the public.
“Whitaker Woods is for the taxpayers of this town and the visitors of this town to use at their leisure,” said Porter. “I would have a problem endorsing any kind of commercial entity going in there and use it for their own private financial gain.”
Conservation commissioner chairman Rob Adair said he commends REI for asking permission.
Meanwhile, REI is hosting a Hospitality Industry Play Day on Monday, June 24, from 1-5:30 p.m. at Echo Lake State Park in North Conway.
According to the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, the "REI Experiences Team" will be treating local hospitality workers (lodging, dining, or resorts) to a "free day of outdoor adventure" at the state park, including kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and paddleboarding.
For more information, go to rei.com/stores/north-conway.html.