Mystic Park On The Verge | Financial strain and concerns raised by HVP could lead to park closure

*This story has been updated with new information from the Alpine Community Plantation about the root of the problems Mystic faces, and news about the future of the park. 

Bright has become a mountain biking mecca in the Victorian High Country, attracting riders from around Australia — and the world — to experience trails like Shred Kelly’s Last Stand, Hero Trail, Elevation and Mystic DH, the list goes on and on. It’s also proved to be a pretty handy event venue hosting the AusCycling National Championships, the Oceania MTB Champs and serving as the home base to The GOAT, with Mystic Park hosting two stages of the race.

However, the future of Mystic Park is uncertain. According to an email obtained by Flow sent to members of the Bright Chamber of Commerce, the land owner Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP) has raised several concerns, which, if left unresolved, could result in the park being closed.

This was confirmed over the weekend, with the Alpine Community Plantation issuing a statement outlining the park is at risk of partial or complete closure due to financial pressures impacting its ability to carry out necessary works.

The future of Mystic MTB Park is uncertain after revelations that the ACP may be in financial trouble.

Mystic Mountain Bike Park is located on a pine plantation owned by HVP. The Alpine Community Plantation was formed in 2014, to manage the interests of the community who want to recreate in the forest and the land owner. HVP, the Alpine Shire Council, the Vic State Government, the Alpine Cycling Club, the Bright District Chamber of Commerce and the North East Victoria Hang Gliding Club all have a seat on the ACP board.

HVP has an existing management license that requires the ACP to meet certain conditions to ensure Mystic Park remains safe and that risks are managed appropriately so the park can remain operational within the private plantation setting.

An HVP spokesperson told Flow, “HVP Plantations recently met with the ACP Board and the Executive Officer. During these discussions, HVP became aware that ACP is facing several challenges regarding its long-term financial viability and may be unable to fulfil its operational obligations relating to Mystic Park going forward.”

Mystic is entirely on HVP land, which is essentially leased to the ACP. As with any lease, there are conditions that need to be met, and it seems the ACP might come up short.

According to the ACP news release, the park posted record numbers of visitors in the summer of 2021-2022, on top of a steady increase in popularity and demand, and has exceeded what the original concept of the body can accommodate.

“As a result, the cost of maintaining and operating the park through the 2023 financial year is forecast to significantly exceed the revenue generated. Key risk areas for the park, involving maintenance work and signage, are unable to be funded without notable investment,” the release said.

According to the ACP, it is currently investigating alternative funding models to keep the park open, including a ‘pay to play’ setup.

Everyone caught off guard

Bright is often held up as a shining star for the way forestry and recreation can co-exist in harmony. The news that this relationship was headed for stormy waters has blindsided everyone, including other members of the ACP board like the Alpine Cycling Club, and the Bright Chamber of Commerce.

In a statement, the Alpine Cycling Club said it was shocked and disappointed with the news Mystic’s future was in doubt.

“We are deeply concerned about the devastating financial and social impact any partial or full closure of the park would have for Bright, North-East Victoria, and the wider Australian cycling community,” the Club said.

Given Bright’s status as an MTB destination in Australia, this announcement came as quite a shock.

A spokesperson from the Club told Flow, “The Alpine Cycling Club is absolutely committed to working with ACP/ HVP and the Alpine Shire to find a suitable resolution to keep the park open.”

Shuttering Mystic outright would send shockwaves through the community in Bright. It would hit everyone from the local riding community, and affect the bottom line of businesses rooted in mountain bikes, but also accommodation, cafes, pubs and the like.

In a statement, the Bright and District Chamber of Commerce said it was committed to ensuring the park remains open.

“We appreciate HVP’s willingness to open up the plantation for mountain biking for our community and enabling Mystic to grow into such a valuable asset to our town,” said Ally Wilson, the Chamber Treasurer and delegate to the ACP board.

“We are absolutely committed to assisting HVP, ACP and the Alpine Shire Council to create a sustainable business model for Mystic Park, and to ensure a positive solution is found,” she continued. “We see this as an opportunity to create a new model for Mystic Park that will see it become a sustainable and successful operation, ensuring its long-term success.”

Mystic is a crucial contributor to the economy in Bright. If that faucet is turned off, it could put the town in a difficult position.

What the Alpine Community Plantation has to say?

When this news broke, Flow reached out to Kirsten Seeto, the Executive Officer at the Alpine Community Plantation, to try and put together the root cause of this funding issue and what might happen to Mystic. Flow also asked for clarification and a few more details on points made in the initial press release.

According to Seeto, the major increases in running costs are attributed to wages and maintenance.

“Prior to COVID we were able to operate with one part-time employee and a handful of casual gate attendants, whilst the Alpine Cycling Club volunteers conducted most of the ad-hoc park maintenance. Since COVID restrictions lifted, the maintenance demands of the park have exceeded what volunteers can commit to, requiring the addition of an in-house maintenance team and expansion of the workload on the existing team.”

The combination of Bushfires and COVID has created a perfect storm for a massive increase in costs right after a period of little income.

“Maintenance covers both road maintenance and trail maintenance. Whilst we are in a position to recover maintenance costs from shuttles and other road users, the intensity of visitation last summer has increased costs significantly. The current financial model was designed for moderate visitation levels and not sudden increases like we saw last season, ” she explained

The news that Mystic was at risk was (and still is) a shock to the entire mountain biking community, according to Seeto, the park has not enjoyed a “typical” year since 2017, when the measures to reduce vehicle traffic were implemented.

The combination of sudden and intense visitation post-relaxation of COVID restrictions and a financial model built for moderate visitation resulted in the situation we now have

“This has made forecasting the demands on the organisation near impossible, and the 2021-2022 season has pushed existing resources to the limit,” she explains.

“Bushfires and then COVID understandably saw visitation drop, and with little income, the Park wound down, like many businesses, hoping to stay alive until people could travel again. The combination of sudden and intense visitation post-relaxation of COVID restrictions and a financial model built for moderate visitation resulted in the situation we now have,” she says.

According to Seeto, last season saw Mystic’s highest visitation rates ever, and in response, the ACP management team had to reassess its current operating model.

“All considered changes required some level of higher investment into the park and alternative revenue models. The ACP Board ascertained that if visitation rates next summer were to be maintained, the current financial model would be unable to support the operation of the park in line with the requirements of our management licence,” she says.

Very few users appear to understand that the land is forestry land first and recreational amenity second. Frequent disrespect for trail closures (largely due to harvesting operations) puts the park at risk.

Seeto was unable to share a dollar amount but said a significant injection of cash is needed, but also noted that the ultimate solution needs to provide sustainability.

“This means thinking hard about whether to invest in land that has frequent forestry operations changing the landscape. Thinking about how we can move the cost of the park from the land managers and onto the amenity users. Thinking about how to continue to nurture the mountain biking spirit and amenity in Bright without depending so heavily on the generosity of private land managers, which should never be taken for granted,” she says.

While the financial issues are at the forefront of the problems at Mystic, Seeto also noted that in addition to changes in the funding structure, the way that folks treat the park needs an adjustment.

“Very few users appear to understand that the land is forestry land first and recreational amenity second. Frequent disrespect for trail closures (largely due to harvesting operations) puts the park at risk. It’s important to note whilst there are users who do appreciate and respect this, the users who feel entitled to ride wherever they want on privately managed land put the future of such a valuable relationship at risk,” she says.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised with Flow, both anecdotally in conversations with Bright locals, and in reporting this story.

The closure would affect everyone

Laura Gray’s story is like many in Bright. She and her young family moved to Bright for its proximity to mountain biking and skiing, and she is now the Marketing Manager at Bright Brewery.

“From the brewery’s perspective, it would be disappointing and have a significant impact on our visitation and therefore our revenue across the year if the park were to close. Obviously, we hope that doesn’t happen,” she says.

Part of what makes Mystic unique is that it’s open year-round and helps to even out the seasonality of the tourism economy in the region. Bright Brewery has been trying to take that a step further by planning events outside the traditional tourist season to attract folks beyond the typical summer and winter travel boom.

The Bright Brewery has leaned on the park to attract visitors in what would traditionally be the low season, and it would likely feel the wave if Mystic is closed.

“Mountain biking is one of the key attractions that brings visitors to Bright all year round,” she says. “Even with the July school holidays just past, there is a bit of snow traffic, but the shuttle car park at Mystic was busy all day, every day.”

With a steady stream of visitors coming to Bright year round, businesses like the brewery and others, can retain permanent, full-time staff. If that visitation dropped off, it would likely bring with it casualisation and seasonality of the workforce.

“When there are permanent jobs in Bright, it means that people can move here with their families, work in the community and contribute to the local economy. So yes, revenue from visitors is one thing, but the workers in town that are employed to support that visitation are vital to the town’s economy,” she says.

“I think from a business perspective, there is definitely opportunity for businesses in town to help support the park, because every business in town benefits from it, whether they realise it or not,” says Gray.

This news is still pretty fresh, but it sounds like the community is rallying to do what they can to keep the park open.

On a personal level, Gray is a mountain biker who utilises the network, as does her family. She says the closure of the park would be gut-wrenching and completely change their way of life.

“It would be devastating, and it would remove the major attraction of Bright for us. And there’s a lot of other people and young families in that position,” she says.

What happens next?

To be clear, this is not necessarily a nail in the coffin for Mystic, and there is already work taking place in the background to find a solution going forward.

An HVP spokesperson also told Flow it is continuing to work with ACP and other key stakeholders, including the Alpine Shire Council, to find solutions to both the operational management and risk concerns and the need for ACP to have long-term financial sustainability. Since we first reported this story, the Council has also said it will provide staffing resources to investigate the best way forward.

According to reporting in The Border Mail, following an ACP board meeting on Monday night, the park will stay open under its current arrangement until the end of the lease in December 2023, to allow time for a new funding stream to be identified.

What does seem likely to happen is a change in how folks use Mystic.

Pay to play is one of the ideas that has been floated to help keep Mystic open.

For one reason or another, the cost to keep Mystic up and running increased to the point that the current funding apparatus can no longer support. Mountain bike parks need upkeep, which costs money. And up to this point, it has been free to use Mystic; yes, shuttling costs money, but you don’t need shuttles to access the park.

Some sort of pay-to-play model has been floated as a potential solution. If we had to guess, we’d say some kind of park entry fee is on the horizon, but we can only speculate.

“It’s not to necessarily make a massive profit, but make sure it’s safe, given it’s a working pine plantation,” Alpine Cycling Club President Peter Berlowitz told The Border Mail.

This situation is still fluid, and several local operators Flow contacted for comment weren’t totally across the situation yet. We expect more details will come to light in the coming week, and we’ll update this story as we learn more.

Stay tuned folks, as we expect more news to break surrounding the future of Mystic.

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