Brent Baker is president of Bike Peoria in Peoria, IL, a community organization empowering Peoria to travel by bicycle. Bike Peoria recently opened a co-op where neighbors can affordably access tools to fix their bikes and get trained in bike maintenance skills by friendly volunteers.
I chatted with Brent about how the co-op works and how it has impacted Peoria.
Rachel: What is the Bike Peoria Co-op?
Brent: The parent organization is called Bike Peoria [and it] has only been around for about three years. I’ve been involved for the last two. I got involved originally because I hadn’t owned a bike in 12-14 years and was like, ‘I need to buy a bike.’ I bought one on Craigslist and things started falling apart.
I had heard about a co-op that was opened on Main Street and met some folks involved with that. I fell in love with the place when I walked in. It was hot and messy and cluttered, but had this energy about it of people helping other people in a cool community space. I kept showing up, helping out and learning more. Last year, I was voted president of the organization.
Rachel: What’s the mission of the co-op?
Brent: Bike Peoria’s mission is to empower Peorians to travel by bike and make it a more viable, safe mode of transit in our city. The co-op is a pretty big strategy towards social and economic empowerment. [...] The predominant clientele we see are low-income folks from the neighborhood. People come for parts on their bike that they need to get around and to get to work. The neighborhood we’re in—the 61606 zip code—is the most dense and the most diverse—both ethnically and socioeonomically. It’s very advantageous to be in this neighborhood.
Rachel: How does the co-op work?
Brent: The co-op proper is all volunteer run and operated. We survive on donations of bikes and parts that we either rehabilitate or salvage the parts and sell ad hoc.
We also have a membership model that allows folks to pay $40 a year that entitles them to use the space whenever we’re open and get assistance from volunteers. If you’re not a member, it just costs $5 an hour. We empower you to get the knowledge to do the repairs.
Last year, we had over 300 unique visitors to the co-op and about 120 paid. We were able to resell 140 adult bikes. That’s the primary cash flow for our organization and we’re able to pay rent and be operating pretty far into the black during the peak riding months. (It’s a little slower in winter.) Our overhead is probably close to $500-600 a month with rent, utilities, and insurance. Now we have enough rainy day funds that we’re able to provide some formal funds to our other programming.
Rachel: That’s an impressively stable financial situation for a small nonprofit. What other programming are you supporting with the extra funds?
Brent: For our children’s bikes that get donated, we have a partnership with Dream Center Peoria, a homeless shelter for mothers and children. We do a Build-a-Bike/Earn-a-Bike program two to three times a year. It’s a four to six week after-school program where the kids get hands-on maintenance learning, they get their own bike, toolbox, helmet and learn some basic safety stuff. We’ve run that for about two years now.
Last year. we had about 65 kids that we were able to reach through that program. We’ve been operating largely off donations for that, but this year […] with some cash through the co-op, we can hopefully pay a small stipend to the volunteer who runs that.
[We also do] monthly workshops open to the public for a small fee and free for members, like Fix a Flat and Bike Basics workshops. […] Those rotate every few months. We also do some casual rides to get people comfortable riding in the streets. And we do a first Friday arts event. It’s a night ride to get people down in our neighborhood, out in the streets. […]
The last thing we’re hoping to be piloting this year is a Bike-Friendly Business program. We’d be looking to onboard and recruit companies that would incentivize people riding to their business. We’re creating stickers and marketing collateral that we’d sell to businesses and they would sell them to customers. You buy a sticker and put it on your helmet, then when you come to that business and show your helmet, you get a discount.
Rachel: It’s pretty amazing that you’re able to accomplish this with just volunteers. You must have some enthusiastic leaders.
Brent: We have a small and mighty team. We’re very fortunate. We have a board of 13 folks and a group of 25 volunteers that step up and help out.
Rachel: Do your regular customers ever end up becoming volunteers?
Brent: We’ve had a couple more standout volunteers who are folks like myself who showed up one day and just kept showing up. It’s empowering to be able to help out and become a content expert at something, even if it is just bike mechanics. There’s also a piece that isn’t so tangible—access to a community. We’re passionate about cycling but also being able to help out the community.
Rachel: Have you been inspired by other bike co-ops or are you mostly just going it on your own?
Brent: We started informally, but since then we’ve been in communication with a group called the Bike Project in downstate [Illinois], and there are some folks in Bloomington that we’ve been in contact with. We’ve also been in contact with co-ops in the Chicagoland area just to do some fact finding. We’re trying to take some members and do a bike tour and meet some leaders up there. For the most part, though, we’ve been trying to tighten up our organization and make it more sustainable.
Rachel: What are your goals for the future of the co-op?
Brent: [We’d like to] get things a little tighter. We haven’t relied a whole lot on grant funding or private funds that could potentially go away. It’s been harder getting things up and running. But we’re at the point where we’re looking toward sustainability. That makes it more compelling to approach private dollars.
What would it take to start a bike co-op in your town? What impact would that have on the economic success of your community?
All photos courtesy of Bike Peoria. Interview edited for length and clarity.