UNADILLA — They've set the footings and framed the walls. Soon, they'll add the trusses and roof, and pour the slab.
Another pole barn rising in a sea of Nebraska corn, this one at the end of a dusty driveway a few miles northwest of Unadilla.
But when Karl Hinkley throws open its doors, ideally before the start of next winter, he expects his 4,000-square-foot building to be unlike anything, anywhere.
“We’re trying to make history here,” he said. “My goal is to have this be the last winter we ever spend in Nebraska where bicycle kids don’t have a place to go.”
Hinkley and his team of volunteers — some of them longtime friends, some accidental supporters — are building a heated freestyle BMX park that he pledges will always be free, always open to the public. A place where kids and adults can perfect their jumps, flips and other high-flying tricks year-round, like an indoor skate park but for bikes.
But like nothing else he's aware of.
“It’s going to be the only one like it in the world,” he said.
He has some experience. Hinkley and his wife, Carrie, own Nowear BMX, selling frames, handlebars and clothing, and organizing a stunt team that tours the country. But the company is likely best known for its BMX acreage in rural Otoe County, about 20 miles east of Lincoln.
Since they bought their home eight years ago, they've sculpted and shaped its 6 acres with a series of BMX trails and a 10-foot mega ramp. Riders of all ages and skill levels make pilgrimages from around the country, and overseas, to the Nowear Compound.
So far this year, more than 2,000 different riders have traveled down the gravel road and turned into the Hinkleys'driveway. And as long as they sign a waiver and wear a helmet, Hinkley lets them ride for free.
“People ask me all the time. They’re dumbfounded by this: 'You’re doing it for free? How can you afford to do it for free?'” he said. “My answer is, 'How can we not afford to do this?'”
And this is where his plan becomes about more than a warm place to ride in the winter.
“The majority of kids are low-income and they don’t have a lot. Bicycling can be an expensive sport and I don’t think we should shut the door on kids because they don’t have much.”
Hinkley started riding motocross when he was young, and then BMX, and his father would drive him six hours most weekends to the nearest freestyle park, in Davenport, Iowa.
He was bullied as a kid, he said, but flourished on two wheels. “BMX saved my life. I got picked on a lot. That’s a big part of why we do what we do; I want kids who maybe aren’t cut out for football and other sports to have a safe place to come and feel like they’re part of something.”
Nearly a decade ago, he and his wife were living in Palmyra but were considering a move to Colorado, and its more-vibrant BMX scene. But he'd also been mentoring a few kids who didn't have father figures in their life, and the couple had to make a choice.
“We thought, 'If we could find an acreage, we could open our hearts and home to kids and make a difference.' We did not realize the magnitude that would reach.”
They began building their outdoor compound. They put ramps in a smaller, unheated barn. And then, a couple of years ago, they started envisioning a heated indoor training park.
They're planning a space that can accommodate 20 to 30 riders at a time — plus a seating area for parents — with ramps and jumps and a foam pit, so riders don't have to worry about nailing every landing.
They raised about $18,500 through fundraisers and broke ground in October. With volunteer labor, Hinkley figures he needs to raise between $45,000 and $50,000; without it, maybe three times that.
He's been looking for sponsorships and donations — he'll sell the building's naming rights for the right price — but sometimes the help has been finding him, too.
Josh Larson operates the Star City BMX track and has known Hinkley for years. He focuses on racing — the track near Oak Lake lures up to a 100 riders a year from across the state — but it doesn't matter his friend is into freestyle; it's all BMX.
“It’s two different things, but it's still the same concept. You can learn both and be a better rider.”
Nebraska BMX racers are at a disadvantage because they're off their bikes four months of the year. A winter riding ground could keep them competitive, he said. “Having somewhere to go ride is huge. It’s going to change the dynamic.”
He has a construction background, so he offered to do the dirt work and pour the footings. But he's been volunteering for several months, serving as an informal general contractor.
Chuck Leo got involved by chance. The owner of Omaha's HSP Construction recently bought a four-wheeler from Hinkley, who started sharing his plan.
“There was something about him. I could see he had a lot of passion for helping kids and helping the community,” Leo said.
Leo offered to send a crew to Otoe County. And he talked to his neighbor, who owns Doug Peterson Painting. Between the two companies, seven workers spent two long days on the building, and they're planning to return.
They haven’t charged Hinkley a cent.
“But it wasn’t just helping one person, it was helping a bunch,” Leo said. “I really felt like helping Karl was going to help a generation of kids.”