BikeNet, the nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the trail system in Billings, is poised to switch into high gear.
It recently hired its first executive director, Kristi Drake, who previously served on the BikeNet board and in 2010 organized the group's biggest annual fundraiser, Ales for Trails.
"I really feel fortunate to have her on board," said board president Nash Emrich. "She's so excited and inspired."
Drake has been on the job since Nov. 2 and has an office in the old L&L Building, also known as the Arcade Building, at Minnesota Avenue and South 27th Street.
She said her first order of business is to prepare for BikeNet's annual meeting in February and then get to work on Ales for Trails, the fall fundraiser that brings thousands of people to Dehler Park.
She also wants to start a membership drive and to modernize the BikeNet website, making it a place where people can easily join the group, make donations or sign up for the organization's newsletter.
Drake and her husband, Craig, moved here from Nevada with their two daughters, now 18 and 16. Drake was checking out schools where she could earn a master's degree in public relations and set her sights on Montana State University Billings.
She asked her husband, a hydrologist with the Bureau of Land Management, to look for openings in Billings. He found one and they moved here five years ago.
Because of her involvement with BikeNet, she had that organization in mind when she wrote her master's paper on what nonprofit agencies do when they reach the point of needing full-time paid staff to expand their missions.
Emrich said that was the point reached by BikeNet last year. The two people who had volunteered to organize the previous two Ales for Trails events told the board the job was getting too big for volunteers.
Early this year, the board started talking about hiring a director, then formed a subcommittee to study the best way of making the transition. Ten people from around the country applied for the job and interviews with the top candidates started in August.
Drake thinks she knows why she was hired.
"They knew how committed I am to making a difference," she said.
She had formerly run United Way's Roots of Promise program, aimed at preventing youth substance abuse. She resigned from that position in July but continued working on unfinished projects until September.
Drake said her new job is connected to her role at United Way, because she thinks one of the best ways to keep kids off drugs is to get them involved in healthy activities like walking and bicycling, preferably with their families.
BikeNet, which was formed in 2000, has raised more than $350,000 over the years and has provided more than $110,000 in local matching funds to build trails in the Billings area since 2003.
Most of the trail-building money comes from the state Community Transportation Enhancement Program, which uses federal funding and requires a local match. Since 2003, nearly 35 miles of trails have been built in Billings.
Drake will also be working closely with Darlene Tussing, the city's alternate modes coordinator. Tussing used to work for the Planning Department and now works under a part-time contract with the city.
Tussing has been involved in most of the trail projects completed in Billings and was also involved in trail projects in Nebraska before moving here. On Tuesday, Drake took a two-hour bike tour of some of the trail system with Tussing, learning details of the trails, the funding sources and people involved in building them.
"I got quite a personal history of it," Drake said.