A chronological overview of the largest fund-raising effort of Free Cycles' history.
Written by Emily Jensen.
Free Cycles raised 1.1 million last year through a combination of donations and loans during a grassroots capital campaign. The campaign was launched to the public in December of 2015 and was closed in December of 2016. Since obtaining property ownership, Free Cycles has expanded into occupying about 30,000 sq. ft. of land and 2,000 sq. ft. of office space in addition to the 4,000 sq. ft. we have rented for the past 12 years. Our monthly mortgage payment is $6,700. We currently rent to three other tenants and this income equates to half of the mortgage payment.
In order to make property ownership a reality we have sought and received:
$200,000 cash donations from grassroots fund-raising
$105,000 20 year loan from Missoula County @ 4%
$895,000 25 year loan from a local social investor @ 6%
September & October, 2015.
It was quite interesting to see men and women in formal attire touring the space where you are constantly working with people and bikes all day, often covered in grease, dirt, and sweat. We knew the property was on the market, and it was no secret that the buildings Free Cycles has operated for the past 11 years would likely be lost to new development. In staff meetings we contemplated for over several months whether trying to buy the place would be the right decision for Free Cycles or Missoula. Upon the start of trickling conversation beyond our dedicated team, the general feedback was excitement and support. The pros outweighed the cons. We would have to make sacrifices both personally and professionally. But the opportunity came, many things lined up at just the right time, and so we decided to rise to the challenge.
An email I sent Bob the day after the Buy-Sell agreement had been signed said:
"I honestly think that this campaign, or whatever we want to call it...journey...is going to be some of the greatest personal development that both of us embark on. Ever."
Our work started by formulating a "case statement", which easily summarized the premise of the campaign. Something that is always discussed among our core staff and volunteer members is the importance of language. We know how important each and every word is in conveying a story. However, we are also aware of how messaging can be misconstrued, words can be twisted, and people interpret things differently. The primary statement we used throughout the campaign went as follows:
"Cycles of Change: Raising 1.1 million dollars to grow a world class bicycle center."
Cycles of Change is a campaign geared towards purchasing the property where Free Cycles Missoula has operated for the past 11 years. Stationed in the lovely Riverfront Neighborhood, the non-profit community bicycle shop has provided 200,000 people from diverse backgrounds with free bicycle repair skills. We further strive to inspire positive community change to all who enter through our doors.
An agreement has been made with the current property owners. Free Cycles has until July 1st of 2016 to accumulate enough funds to buy the two acres of land and historic wood buildings. Located in the heart of Missoula, at the union of two primary trails, the property is an ideal place to continue the work of Free Cycles and its umbrella organization, the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation. Preserving the existing buildings will honor Missoula’s heritage and create pathways to a livable future.
Free Cycles was formed in 1996 to reduce air pollution, improve congestion, and re-purpose unused bicycles for the community good. Over time, many social cycling services have developed, including Open Shop, Build A Bike, and BikeWell Education. Owning the land at 732 S. 1st St. will enable these vital community programs to be expanded to their full potential.
Such goals may seem ambitious, yet here at Free Cycles we feel the timing is impeccable. Let’s celebrate 20 years of people power, honor the passion of collective community spirit, heighten awareness, and unite for a cause in which we truly believe! Let's do this. Together."
Much of November was spent getting our ducks in a row. There were many planning meetings consisting of feedback, advice, and insight from members of the Missoula community. When we weren't meeting with people, we spent much of our time writing and editing.
The first money officially raised for the Cycles of Change campaign was at the Cat vs. Griz game in Bozeman, MT. Myself and three volunteers took the trip, loading a truck with fun bikes and a trailer we crafted the evening before to draw attention to ourselves. We held a bucket drive, with UM's griz colors over one bucket and MSU's bobcat colors over the other. Our crew called ourselves the "change gang" and raised $200.00 in two hours. At certain points during the day it was difficult being in territory where most folks were unaware of Free Cycle's work or mission, but it was a good boost of energy for the campaign, knowing we had to start somewhere.
Missoulian media launch: "Missoula's Free Cycles starts $1.1M campaign to buy property"
Missoula Independent initial article: "Free Cycles: Room to Grow"
KPAX coverage: "Missoula's "Free Cycles" looks for help to buy building"
MCAT Wake Up Missoula: "Wake Up: Cycles of Change"
We went public with the campaign in early December, with a launch event from 10am-10pm. There was an activity every hour on the hour, ranging from a studded bike tire workshop to a bike polo game in the back of the shop. In full Free Cycles spirit, the event was free and open to anyone. The morning consisted of people enjoying coffee and bagels donated by local businesses.
While the day generated good energy and was a fantastic way to kick off the campaign, we knew there was still so much work to be done. Operations continued as normal as we continued to configure and strategize the best plan to raise the money to secure the property, get as many people involved as possible, and still best serve the community.
Missoula Independent follow-up article:
Majority of the month of January was spent in meetings. Free Cycles began to host bi-monthly potlucks in which volunteers gathered on Friday evenings to discuss the campaign. These potlucks were often brainstorming sessions, incorporating ways to plug people into the grassroots movement. Folks would eat and socialize for about an hour before the whole group came together as one to discuss current affairs. Afterwards, people would break into different groups or committees such as focused on essential topics such as events, grants, canvassing, and more. The amount of volunteers to attend the potlucks ranged from about 12 to 40 people.
Our first Cycles of Change event could be described in one word: cozy. The evening was mainly focused on bringing people into the beloved space. Lights were dangling across the ceilings, strung in and out of bicycle wheels. People enjoyed music, dancing, and in many of my conversations there were compliments on how brave of a plunge we had taken by attempting to buy the property. Note cards were posted throughout the inside of the shop with blurbs of what people loved about the neighborhood they reside in, to fit the theme we had chosen a month or so earlier.
It was the first event of several to follow and although we still weren't exactly sure how exactly we were going to meet the fundraising goal, it was reassuring to know that our hearts were in the right place.
Missoulian article: "Free Cycles launches online fundraiser to secure property"
It was the month of March when we decided it was time to launch our campaign transparently online via a crowdfunding site called Crowdrise. We complimented the launch with a "Pop-Up Shop", which meant closing the physical location of Free Cycles for the day and offering all maintenance help within Caras Park in downtown Missoula.
We also took it upon ourselves to bring back to life an idea that had cultivated the summer before-constructing a geometrical dome out of old bicycle wheels. We loaded up our giant motorcycle trailer with wheels deemed out of bike-building commission and pedaled them to the grassy knoll which overlooks the infamous Brennan's Wave. With many hands and sporadic help throughout the day, before the sun set we had placed the last wheel on the sculpture, exchanged high-fives, and spent time meditating together under rims, hubs, and spokes that had been awaiting their purpose.
The energy that came from this beautiful sculpture as well as the continuous support from the people in the community provided us with the hope we needed as we proceeded forward on the fundraising pursuit.
April was certainly a highlight of the campaign as it consisted of one of our favorite things to do: group rides! An intern organized and coordinated the "Sustainability Superhero Ride", in which people would dress up as super heroes and receive pledges to raise funds for Free Cycles. There were several categories for riders of different skills levels.
The longest ride was a 75-miler, a loop in which six cyclists toured through Western Montana over Petty Creek Road. A group of about twenty people did a twenty mile loop around Missoula on Big Flat Road. For the young ones, there was a loop around the Free Cycles property, including a fancy finish line over a ramp into the back area of the shop. At the end of the day we all feasted upon burgers and salads while listening to Sam Waldorf perform outside in the piazza. It was a pleasant day filled with sunshine and it truly demonstrated how powerful the bicycle is in bringing people together.
For the featured event of the month, there were short presentations or acts in a group setting. One man shared a poem about peanut butter while upside down walking around the wooden floors on his bare hands. People talked about topics they were passionate about: including ending car crashes and saving the bees. Songs were sung. Laughter filled the air. I shared a prayer in the Blackfoot language and almost started crying when looking around the room, overwhelmed by the diversity of faces that had joined us on that night to support Free Cycles.
After the demonstrations, UM Circus Club put on a fascinating act filled with juggling, ribbon dancing, and more. Their team spirit shone through obstacles that unexpectedly arose, sending folks into the night with nothing but positive vibrations.
Meeting after meeting, idea after idea, relationship after relationship, research after research, email after email, phone call after phone call, edit after edit. Bob and I had a running joke: new campaign title: PLEASE just get Bob and Emily back in the shop. But seriously, that is part of the long-term goal and the face to face work is truly the work we are most passionate about.
It takes a certain type of person to stay invested in an organization such as Free Cycles. Believe it or not, while we make sure we mix our work with fun, creativity, learning, etc., the organization's mission statement can make for an extremely difficult job at many times. We work with such a wide range of people at all times, which makes us social workers who just love bicycles and seeing the joy it provides people who are in need, whatever that level of need is.
Just before the July 1st funding deadline, Free Cycles reached 385,000, sufficient to enable a down payment on the 1.1 million dollar property. Current tenant rental incomes more than equal the projected mortgage payments and a sustained fundraising effort could pay down the note. The Buy-Sell agreement allowed ten extra days to finalize the transaction.
During this time, an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the property was released. The EA had been commissioned by Free Cycles and the City of Missoula back in January and was paid for by the EPA Brownsfields program. The report showed that a small, unused section of the property had environmental contamination, the result of Missoula Gas Plant operations (now NorthWestern Energy) from 1909 from 1957. A gas was made by burning goal, with residue disposed of in a deep trench. Incidentally, this coal gas was used to power the street lights of Missoula.
The EA caused enough of an uncertainty that the guarantor (a required condition of the bank loan) withdrew their offer to co-sign the loan. Further, 80,000 of a pledged down payment donations were withdrawn from the project. Subsequently, the Free Cycles team ramped up its efforts even more, meeting with expert environmental attorneys, scientists, and health officials. The goal was to understand the mitigation necessary to address the contamination and any potential liabilities.
Just two days before the deadline to close, a well-respected environmental attorney issued a statement..."remediation of the site would be relatively straightforward and liability for the remediation is the responsibility of NorthWestern Energy." While this information was welcome news, the guarantor and pledged donations had already been committed to other non-profit organizations.
A last-minute meeting occurred and a solution emerged. Free Cycles would leveraged 200,000 to "Cool Corner," a new company formed by a local business person specifically to gain short term ownership of the property. Cool Corner's priority is to transfer ownership to Free Cycles. Free Cycles now needs to replace the lost 80,000 in donations and find a new guarantor as soon as possible, or another route to finance the property. With the continued support and help of community, Free Cycles Missoula hopes to succeed.
Free Cycles has raised $305,000 through a grassroots campaign to buy a permanent home as told below in words and pictures. The campaign was launched to the public in December of 2015. We are currently in the final push to secure the property, and have until November 30th to finalize all financing.
Missoulian article summarizes the state of affairs in November below:
As a piece to finish off the financing of the property, we are extremely close to offering promissory notes to the community. These are essentially loans that will be paid back by Free Cycles over time through a combination of tenant rental income, continued fundraising, and growth in program revenue. The future is bright! Please be patient as we work through the specific details of these notes.
Although the final stage of our campaign is not actively canvassing, phone-banking, or asking for donations, we sure welcome and appreciate them. We are also extremely grateful for volunteer help, please contact us with any interest you may have in getting involved.