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A New Path Forward

The idea started, appropriately enough, in the middle of a bike ride. Alex Fairly and one of his grown sons, Caleb, a former professional cyclist, were pedaling down 34th Avenue on the east side of Amarillo. They passed Caprock High School, then Grand Street, then skirted the north side of the Rick Klein Complex. On the north edge of this municipal park, a paved walking path cuts through the grass, dividing the street from a water treatment reservoir belonging to the city.

Behind that treatment plant, the property is wide open and mostly undeveloped. It’s empty, flat space, dotted with occasional trees until a thick line of them borders a creek bed on the southern edge of the property.

Alex and Caleb were headed east when they noticed another cyclist riding toward them. It was Chris Podzemny. Formerly an environmental investigator for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Podzemny was himself an avid cyclist and a fixture of Amarillo’s outdoor community. In fact, he and the Fairlys had known each other since Podzemny was a teenager—“He was just blazing fast,” Fairly says—and the Fairly clan had begun getting into mountain bike racing. The riders passed on the street, recognized each other, and stopped to talk.

“It wasn’t planned,” Alex Fairly says. 

But it might as well have been, because at that moment, several unique, individual journeys began meandering toward each other. It almost seemed preordained.

The Trail Builder

“I knew the city was interested in developing Rick Klein,” says Podzemny, whose friends call him “Podz.” Despite a full-time job with the state, Podz had spent more than a decade of weekends building multi-use trail systems—dirt paths ideal for mountain biking, hiking or trail running—across the Texas Panhandle. It was entirely a labor of love. Podz is one of the founding members of Six Pack Outdoors, Inc., a nonprofit that coordinates mountain bike races and uses those event proceeds to build trails. 

If you’ve ever spent time on popular Palo Duro Canyon State Park pathways like the Rock Garden Trail or Upper Comanche, then you’ve enjoyed the sweat labor of Podz, Six Pack Outdoors, and the Palo Duro Corps of Engineers, a volunteer team that has spent the past decade expanding and improving the canyon’s trails. Podz and his crew have also contributed to trail systems in Spearman and Dalhart. They helped carve out the single-track Canyon Trails at Buffalo Hill. They’re working on trails at Cross Bar Ranch, a 12,000-acre space overseen by the Bureau of Land Management north of Amarillo, and they’re building more than six miles of the Chad Allen Foster Memorial Trail System through the center of Borger.

Working on municipal, state and federal properties, Podzemny has an incredible amount of experience not just designing and building trail systems, but navigating the permits required to modify public land—something made slightly easier by his environmental background. “There’s a lot of red tape involved and multiple permit processes,” he says. Cities are the simplest clients, because typically they approached Podzemny and Six Pack in the first place, thanks to the team’s reputation for multi-use trail construction. But state and federal lands often require consultation with biologists, archaeologists and others to make sure trail-building doesn’t disrupt the historic and cultural value of the land.

For his part, Fairly already knew about Podzemny’s work organizing races and building trails. In fact, he’d ridden those trails and participated in those events. “They’d done an incredible job with their races. They were very well-organized and really, really well-attended,” says Fairly. “But they were doing them on the weekend with shoestring budgets.”

Right before Podz encountered the Fairlys on Southeast 34th, he’d ridden out to the Rick Klein Complex to take a closer look at that property. The City of Amarillo owned it, but other than softball facilities on the west side, the property remained mostly unused. Having spent years building trails in beautiful spaces outside Amarillo, Podz saw possibility. He had been thinking about proposing to the city a trail-building project at Rick Klein. 

After recognizing each other on the road, the Fairlys and Podz stopped to talk. “He turned around and chatted with us for awhile,” says Fairly. Podz pointed to the nearby landscape. “He was like, ‘Can I show you something? This is really cool out here.’”

The three cyclists pedaled out to the undeveloped part of the complex and Podz began getting more and more animated as he told the Fairlys about his idea to build a network of running or mountain-biking trails at Rick Klein. “He was telling us his vision for what this could be,” Fairly says. Hearing the excitement in his voice, the Fairly Group CEO asked a question. “I said, ‘Chris, do you ever wish you could just do this all the time?’ And he said, ‘Man, that’s the dream of my life, but there’s just no way to make a living at it,’’’ Fairly remembers. 

So right outside the fence of the property, the business owner made an offer to the trail builder. He said, “Chris, we have this idea.”

The CEO

Alex Fairly is the chief executive officer of the Fairly Group, a global risk consulting firm. Based in Amarillo, the Fairly Group has worked with massive construction projects, including several NFL and MLB stadiums and other entertainment complexes and mixed-use venues. Notably, Fairly proved instrumental in using his industry contacts to help bring minor league baseball to Amarillo, resulting in the Sod Poodles’ debut season in 2019.  

As a way to give back to the Amarillo community, Alex and his wife, Cheryl, had recently started their own foundation. They had big plans for the Fairly Foundation, but it was still in its infancy as he and Cheryl considered the local projects and causes they wanted to support. Fairly couldn’t stop thinking in particular about Podzemny’s efforts. 

“It just dawned on me that all this incredible work came from their sweat and hard work and loving to do something that benefits a ton of people,” he says. “Palo Duro Canyon is known all around the state as a place to come ride your bicycle. [Events like] 24 Hours in the Canyon wouldn’t exist without all those trails out there that these guys have created.”

If Podz didn’t see a path toward pursuing his trail-building passion full time, could the Fairly Foundation help give life to that dream? Podz was already waking up every day thinking about riding bikes and building trails, all for the benefit of people living in the Panhandle. In fact, his efforts, and races like 24 Hours in the Canyon, had begun putting the Panhandle on the radar of the nation’s broader mountain-biking community. 

“What if we gave you the opportunity to do this as a career?” Fairly asked Podz that day as they looked at the empty space of the Rick Klein Complex. Like a blank canvas in front of a painter, the possibilities intrigued them both.

The suggestion caught Podzemny off guard. Podz is married, has four kids, and in his mid-40s. He was one year away from being fully vested with the State of Texas’ retirement plan. Though not particularly risk-averse on advanced mountain biking terrain, he greeted the idea of a potential career change with enormous hesitancy. “We had a lot of meetings before I really started entertaining the idea, a lot of early-morning coffee meetings,” Podz says. “I would be walking away from what I thought I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.”

But he couldn’t stop thinking about that potential future. What if he could focus on trails and outdoor recreation full time? What could he create at Rick Klein, or across so many other untapped landscapes in and around the city? The more Podzemny and Fairly talked, the more they began to develop a shared vision: a network of outdoor recreation venues in the Texas Panhandle, all optimized for hiking, running and biking. “We would like it to become well-known around the country, that if you’re into mountain biking or outdoor trail running, you have to go to Amarillo,” Fairly explains.

To make that happen—and to truly launch his foundation’s reinvestment in the city that has been so instrumental to Fairly’s success—Fairly made Podz a job offer. The foundation would hire him full time to pursue that trail-building and race-planning obsession. 

His official title? Community Health Ambassador. 

Podz took the offer. The dream came true.

Under his leadership, Fairly hopes Podzemny will eventually build a robust trail system in and around the Amarillo and Canyon community so that adventure tourists can show up here with their mountain bikes, spend a full week riding, and never cover the same territory twice. “Some day there’s going to be hundreds of miles [of trails], and everyone in the country knows about Amarillo,” Fairly explains. “If Chris can wake up every day and this is all he has to think about and plan, what can we get accomplished?”

The first step in this ambitious dream is already underway: The Rick Klein Complex.

The Parks Director

Since arriving in Amarillo from the Metroplex to become the city’s director of Parks and Recreation, Michael Kashuba has been helping develop a Parks Master Plan to set the direction of his department for the next decade. In the process, he’s met with a number of committees, boards and interested citizens about the city’s needs. “Obviously, our goal is to figure out what our community needs are and figure out ways to continue to meet those needs,” Kashuba says. “Our first round of public engagement with the Master Plan made it clear that there was a need for more trails—walking trails and mountain bike trails.”

Podzemny was well aware that those trails—and the recreation potential he saw at Rick Klein—represented the place his passions collided with the city’s needs. “But the City of Amarillo doesn’t have the funds allocated for this, and they’re not in the business of building trails,” says Podz. So he put together a proposal for building a trail system on the unused part of the Rick Klein Complex, and presented it to Kashuba and the citizens on the Amarillo Parks and Recreation Board. “We just showed them what that would look like. We said, ‘Hey, we want to help build your trails and we’re not asking you for anything other than access.’ That made convincing the city very easy,” Podzemny says.  

Kashuba immediately recognized the value of Podzemny’s plan. “We have that whole portion of land and it was basically sitting there underutilized,” he says. Transforming it into trails could not only improve that space, but serve as a catalyst project for the city’s parks infrastructure. “It opens up a lot of other possibilities down the road, allowing for different user groups to go out there and enjoy nature,” says Kashuba.

He points to a 2018 community health assessment by the city’s Department of Public Health, which identified multiple local concerns. Self-reported obesity rates in Potter and Randall counties were higher than the national average, and continuing to increase. One in four survey respondents categorized their health as “fair” or “poor,” which also exceeded the Texas and national average. And that was before the pandemic. 

“We need to improve our health and wellness in this community, and activities like walking or biking are not something you have to be advanced in,” Kashuba says. “Anybody can go for a walk.” While the Rick Klein Complex has a few trees and the contours of a creek bed on its south side, the landscape is mostly flat. The proposed 15 miles of trails there won’t be technical or particularly challenging—but they will be accessible. “It’s open prairie,” he says. While a flat trail may not be ideal for mountain biking, Kashuba and Podzemny see it as a gateway to experimentation with the outdoor activity. “It’s a great way to introduce people to the sport, people who aren’t ready for the more extreme options or advanced terrain at Palo Duro Canyon. This is a great way to learn the basics before you move to more advanced courses,” the director says.

It’s also an inexpensive way to make expert-level improvements to a city property. “They’ve got a history of doing these for other cities,” Kashuba says of Podz and Six Pack Outdoors. “This is their bread-and-butter. Obviously this is an undeveloped space, and we can develop it at almost no cost for us. We want to improve our facilities but obviously nobody wants to increase taxes.” 

Podz and his crew have a history of relying on generous corporate sponsorships and community organizations to fund their work—limiting the financial obligations of cities like Amarillo and Borger. With the support of the Fairly Foundation and other potential financial backing, the Rick Klein trail system is poised to benefit everyone, from nearby neighborhoods to the City of Amarillo itself.

The Big Bet

The 15 miles of trails at Rick Klein are on pace to be completed by the end of the summer, and while unfinished, are already accessible to the public. And despite being at the edge of town, the setting feels different. “I was out there marking the initial loop [in February] and when I was going through the trees, I saw tons of deer. I saw a little gray fox and several giant owls,” Podzemny says.

 But beyond the visual allure of nature, Fairly sees the simplicity of Rick Klein trails—in fact, the entirety of Podzemny’s trail-building work—as an extension of the quality of life that draws so many to Amarillo in the first place. “We’ve just always been committed to being healthy and exercising and outside activities,” he says of his family. Instead of raising children glued to their devices, he and Cheryl prioritized being outside. “It’s just always been a big part of our life to get to be outside and be active.”

That came in handy during the early months of the pandemic, when The Fairly Group’s offices were closed, clients had paused their work, and Fairly found himself with extra time on his hands. “I would just be out riding at odd times, like on weekday mornings. The main thought I had was that all this chaos was going on in the world, people were afraid to get out of their homes or get near anybody, and none of us knew what to do. But out there on my bicycle, the world seemed normal. Nature didn’t know we had COVID. For two hours, you could forget that was going on.”

With the pandemic continuing to recede, Fairly looks a few months into the future and hopes new outdoor recreation options will have that same calming effect on families. “It’s for those people that would just like to hop on a trail and have a place to ride for 30 minutes, or maybe a family that brings their kids and a picnic and aren’t even on a bike,” Fairly says.

But he also envisions Amarillo continuing to evolve into a destination for mountain biking (see sidebar), with nationally known races and a well-constructed, intersecting trail system. And Podzemny, with his new Fairly Foundation role taking shape, is the perfect point man for that long-term goal. “It’s almost like his life—both his professional and personal life—had gotten him ready for this point,” Fairly says. “I don’t know how we could find anyone who could be this qualified ever to come do this.”

Together, the duo are making a big bet on outdoor recreation and Amarillo’s future, creating something that won’t just be enjoyed in the summer of 2021, but decades into the future. “This is a long-term commitment,” Fairly says about his foundation’s investment in the city. “And it really just started the day we looked over that fence and Chris said, ‘This could be really cool.’” 


Sidebar: The New Bentonville?

In recent years, Alex Fairly and Chris Podzemny have been inspired by the city of Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters of Walmart and home of the heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Over the past few years, the Walton Family Foundation has spent millions of dollars to build miles of natural-surface trails and shared-use paved paths across Northwest Arkansas. As a result, Outside Magazine has described the area as “Disneyland for Mountain Bikers,” making Bentonville a high-profile riding destination rivaling outdoor meccas like Moab, Utah.

The Walton Family Foundation reports that, in 2017 alone, mountain biking brought $137 million in economic benefits to the Bentonville area. That money and interest have helped revitalize the city’s downtown, with the national tourist influx boosting the local food scene. Meanwhile, elite races are attracting professional riders and racing teams.

That gets Fairly’s attention, who says his foundation will make a significant financial commitment to this area over the next 10 years. At the same time, he hopes local trail-building efforts will take on more of a grassroots vibe than the work in Bentonville. The deep pockets of the Walton family mean those trails in Arkansas are being built by professional construction crews. But here in the Panhandle, Podz and the Six Pack Outdoors team depend on dedicated volunteers—which means local buy-in, local ownership, and the local pride needed to maintain trails. 

“They have a massive budget, but that’s not quite our style,” Fairly says of the Walton’s efforts. “It’s an endless amount of work, but with Chris, people are getting involved and getting to know each other [during trail-building projects]. They’re invested in it.”

Amarillo won’t soon replace the slickrock trails of Moab within the mountain biking world. But the outdoor retailer REI recently referred to our area as one of the best-kept secret mountain biking destinations in the country, thanks to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The canyon’s highly technical trails and natural beauty are particularly attractive to Colorado riders whose favorite trails are covered in snow during the winter. Meanwhile, the lack of humidity in the summer draws riders from the Metroplex area and the Texas Hill Country. “We’re a great central location and we have great trails,” Podzemny says. “Outside this area, we’re building a reputation as a destination for great mountain biking.”

For that community, the Texas Panhandle is already worth the drive. If Podzemny and Fairly have their way, more and more riders will begin steering in this direction.