What’s Behind Chuck Ayers’ Dismissal from Cascade Bicycle Club?

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Any organization growing as fast as Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club — from 4,500 in 1997 to the nation’s largest at more than 13,000 today — is going to have to shed a skin or two. For Cascade, that means a shakeup in leadership that will take the little club we and bicycling grew up with in Seattle over three decades into the big leagues of civic, political and organizational boardrooms.

Casualty No. 1: Executive director Chuck Ayers. (Others will surely follow, as we speculate on the future of the club’s advocacy director, David Hiller.)

Ayers was fired by Cascade’s board of directors yesterday with an announcement that seemed abrupt but was the culmination of months of backroom agitation. He will be replaced temporarily by Peter Morgan, who took leave from the board to assume the post of acting executive director. Cascade hopes to name an interim executive director within “the next several weeks” pending a nation-wide search for a permanent ED, timeline TBD.

Offering a salary of $80,000 to $100,000, the club thinks it can attract a top-tier, experienced executive with a flair for cycling but the leadership chops of a corporate officer.

Although we didn’t know him well, Ayers seemed a likable, low-key, quietly effective guy. But he did not strike us as a visionary leader who could provide a flashpoint of visibility for Cascade tantamount to its growing clout. Ayers was a great club president-type; by all indications, Cascade is looking for something more along the lines of a CEO for its next phase.

Good idea? Bad? So far, a lot more heat than light has been shed on Ayers’ departure. Already frequent posters on Cascade’s message board (forum) are scratching their heads, asking for more info from both Ayers and the board. First and foremost: What does this mean for the direction of the club?

Nothing, board members are saying. Something — perhaps big, Ayers and club skeptics are suggesting. But what?

The signals we’re getting indicate that style and vision are at the heart of Cascade’s shakeup. No one is saying that Ayers is a bad executive, just that a different skill set is needed.

That said, the whole affair could have been handled far more smoothly. Instead of resisting, Ayers could have bowed out gracefully by resigning with the usual excuses about more time with family (and for cycling!). The board’s press release could have been worded a bit more professionally, thanking Ayers and leaving it at that rather than “Chuck is no longer the right person.”

But the vision thing is definitely a sticking point. Both Ayers, in a comment to Publicola, and the club (in its press release linked above) mention the term “grass roots.”

Board members say grassroots organization will remain a primary focus, while Ayers seems to suggest that Cascade is getting too big and “professional” to remain true to its constituency.

There’s also a hint of sell–out. A “club” that operates more like a Chamber of Commerce is by nature going to compromise on advocacy, i.e. “grassroots” activism.

Our interpretation: “Grassroots” is code for common folk. There’s a sense that Cascade, seeking to travel in more powerful corporate, fiscal and political circles, will lose touch with its “user base.” The club board denies this of course.

In truth what really happens in this scenario is that the old-timers — founding and longstanding members — do feel alienated. Many complain, some leave. But the organization has to move on.

Instinct tells us that Cascade will continue advocacy, but with a quite different approach. More politically subtle and polished — yes, more “corporate.” But more effective as well.

It all reminds us of a similar wrenching transition undergone by the (now named) Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance. One morning Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club (BBTC) members awoke to learn that the BBTC board had changed the club’s name as well as its focus, vision and hierarchy — all without consulting the grassroots membership.

Many of the old guard, including we at Bike Intelligencer (as a paid lifetime member of BBTC), were none too pleased. But the change proved fruitful. Two years later Evergreen is a far bigger institutional player in the mountain biking, freeride and trails scenes — both regionally and nationally. As for advocacy, it has added two mountain bike parks, a strong county and regional trails presence, and broad educational and rider-training program to its resume.

Those close to Cascade say the club is committed to keeping intact its adept juggling act of recreation, education and advocacy. While that may turn out to be the case, make no mistake —Cascade is in the midst of a sea change. It won’t be your father’s bike club any more — but as my own dad used to say, there’s nothing wrong with that.

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5 thoughts on “What’s Behind Chuck Ayers’ Dismissal from Cascade Bicycle Club?”

  1. Yep, that’s how it happens. A good idea is co-opted by corporate interests when it starts to be really successful. Can’t have the rabble interfering with ‘business as usual’. I fear that no good can come of this.

  2. $80K to run a local bicycling club? That seems a bit high, even for the boom times we enjoyed back in 2006. But with the economy sucking wind, you would think that you could get someone to run this club for $40K->$50K It isn’t that much work to process membership stuff, put out a newsletter, answer questions from the press and harass the mayor to fix the potholes on popular bicycling roads.

  3. @Gary
    Someone who actually has experience is going to cost more than $50k. Why? Because they’re already making way more than $50k. Chances are, whoever takes the position will probably take a salary cut. An organization the size of Cascade Bicycle Club can’t throw in some new college grad and hope it works out, they need to know it’s going to work out.

    Sure it’s a high salary, but someone truly effective will earn that wage 10x over compared to someone doing it for $40k and learning the ropes.

    Some positions are overpaid, but in my mind this is not one of them.

  4. out of all the complaints regarding this very suspicious move, ED salary is not an issue.

    ED’s or CEO’s of non-profits make at a minimum $80-100K, usually considerably more. median is over $150K and many exec’s salaries get into the $300K range. which is still FAR less than their for-profit counterparts. take a look at the Charity Navigator website if you don’t believe me

    80K is not a high salary. it’s barely livable in Seattle. holding the salary to 80-00K, CBC is going to ensure they get someone really passionate about bicycling, because that person sure won’t be doing it for the money.

  5. I’m sorry, but a staff of 23, does not need a $80K/year paid leader.

    Oh and the board finally released a statement why they fired Chuck.
    http://blog.cascade.org/2010/10/a-message-to-members-from-the-board-of-directors/

    It smells of old fish, way old rotting fish. I’m not familiar with the politics of this club, but it looks like an inside fight and takeover by Chris Weiss and Peter Morgan.

    An interview with Chuck would be in order now to hear his side of this dispute. And since the board is up for re-election (cast your ballot by Oct 21) No time to lose.

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