Councilman Welch proposes 'world-class' park for dirt bikers

On Monday the City Council voted to move forward with hearings on a proposal by Councilman William "Pete" Welch to build a "world-class" dirt bike facility in the city.

Welch wants the city to explore partnerships with the state and private businesses in order to come up with a plan to create a facility that could be a home to the burgeoning ranks of Baltimore's dirt bike riders.

Hearings will be conducted initially by the council's Parks and Recreation committee, chaired by Carl Stokes.

Speaking after the meeting, Welch said he will follow up on Monday's motion with a resolution requesting that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who has so far been publicly cool to the idea of a park, to form a special task force to consider the idea separately from the council's efforts. Such a task force would include legal and finance experts who could advise the city on liability issues and the details of any funding scheme, whether through public bond issues, private financing, or some combination of both, he said.

Welch sees the park as a cooperative alternative to the confrontational tack the city has taken with its bike-riding residents. While dirt biking is a common hobby among white suburban and rural Maryland residents, in the city of Baltimore, the pastime's young black enthusiasts have been branded as part of an outlaw subculture because it is illegal to ride the vehicles on public streets, the only terrain available to them.

Welch said that the city's attempt to quash the dirt bike phenomenon with law enforcement has failed, and is now in danger of becoming a flash point for conflict between police and the city's youth.

Two weeks ago a tense standoff with dozens of police, some equipped for riot control, at a weekly gathering of bikers on Reisterstown Road resulted in disciplinary actions for one officer after he was captured on camera by City Paper photographer Noah Scialom waving a gun at the crowd.

"When I see the police in riot gear, that sends the wrong message to me," said Welch.

"We just had a series of conflicts, what they call the uprising, back in April, and I don't want anything to even approach that," he said. "We have to provide choices for our children, not steer them in the wrong direction by not addressing the issue."

Welch was joined at the meeting by Kim Smith, the mother of a 21-year-old biker who died last month from injuries sustained when he was struck by a car on North Avenue.

Smith says that for her son and others like him, bike riding is a passion. She compares the city's suggestion that hobbyists simply give the pastime up to someone recommending a heroin addict "just say no."

As of today, Smith said, the dirt bike phenomenon has a dual nature, both a positive and a negative influence on young people's lives.

On the positive side, she said, is the fact that bike riding is liberating for its devotees, and gave her son, for one, an outlet for his natural talents as a mechanic. On the negative side, bikes are effectively outlawed anywhere within city limits, and young riders and sometimes bystanders are being injured and killed.

"Young people are dying in this inner city," Smith said. "I'm not the first mother, and I won't be the last."

Those negatives could be quickly erased with a dirt bike park like the one envisioned by Welch, Smith said.

Welch said a sanctioned park could also go a long way toward easing the deep animosity felt by many city residents toward the bikers, who generally have little regard for the rules of the road, stunting their way through traffic and generally freaking motorists out.

"Anything that’s an urban sport, or has the potential to be an urban sport, is always extreme, and extreme behavior evokes extreme reactions," Welch said.

"I think when you take some of the danger out of it by having a venue, you go a long way towards getting rid of the vilification," he said.

Although reluctant to make the connection himself, Welch did say that in the run up to the council meeting Monday evening, perhaps a dozen different people had compared the potential benefits of a sanctioned bike park favorably against the failures of the Baltimore Grand Prix.

He envisions the park as a self-sustaining and perhaps even revenue-generating endeavor, complete with an annual competition that would attract national media.

"If I had a dirt bike park, I would put a Hip Hop Chicken, a McDonald's, and everything else outside, and it would work," Welch said.

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