KINGSPORT - Chris Spencer was biking along the city's Greenbelt one day when the idea came to him - why not offer bicycle rentals so others could enjoy the Greenbelt on wheels?
"I'm a biker and had ridden the Greenbelt for quite a few years, but I'm also a hiker and had noticed a lot of bikers on the Virginia Creeper Trail" near Abingdon, Spencer said. "I thought, â€˜Wouldn't that be great to see lots of people enjoying the Greenbelt like that."
Spencer, a Kingsport native and research technologist at Eastman Chemical Co., decided to act on his hunch. He dropped by The Golfer's Edge, a driving range and miniature golf course near a Greenbelt access point on Stonebrook Place off Stone Drive, and struck up a partnership with the owner.
Shortly thereafter in April 2006, Spencer's idea turned reality.
"I started out bringing bikes in the back of my pickup on weekends, and set up in the parking lot here (at The Golfer's Edge)," Spencer said.
By mid-summer, the rental business had caught on, and Spencer was using a trailer to haul bikes for folks to rent.
At the end of the biking season in October, Spencer knew he'd found a business niche.
In December, Spencer was recognized for his new business in the 2006 "KOSBE ShowDown" Small Business Contest. His new Greenbelt Bicycle Rentals LLC took top honors in the contest's retail division.
"I had seen the contest information in the newspaper and it hit me in October - I needed to apply. I almost missed the deadline," said Spencer.
The contest recognized winners in four categories - retail, service, technology, and media/communications. The winner in each category gets $3,000 in start-up funds, plus 16 hours of advice from an advisory panel of experts specializing in law, marketing, finance and management.
In addition, each winner will receive one year of free membership in the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce; a quarter-page advertisement in the Kingsport Times-News; business promotion from the KOSBE program; speaking opportunities at KOSBE events; and pre-approved use of the KOSBE Small Business Award emblem on marketing materials for one year.
Spencer said he will use his $3,000 in winnings to build up his bicycle inventory. This coming season - from April 1 to Oct. 31 - Greenbelt Bicycle Rentals will offer various adult and kid-size bikes for rent and for sale. The business is an authorized dealer of "Jamis" bicycles, a top-line brand, Spencer said.
"I'm the only dealer where you can actually ride your bike before buying it. Who would go and buy a car without driving it? It just makes sense to be able to try it out first," Spencer said.
Although the business officially opens April 1, Spencer said he plans to have a few bicycles available for renting on warm weekends this winter.
Come spring, he plans to build a deck onto the side of The Golfer's Edge Pro Shop, where he'll house his bicycles under a covered canopy. Bicycle rentals will be available seven days a week in the upcoming season.
For now, he's storing the bikes at his home.
"I've got a basement full of bikes," Spencer said.
He said his business is geared for the recreational bicyclist. "It makes it convenient - you don't have to haul around your bike - just come here and pick one out," he said.
He carries what's called "comfort" bicycles, which allow the rider to sit upright instead of forward-leaning. Comfort bicycles feature suspension in the front and seat, adjustable handle bars, adjustable seat, hand brakes, and a wide padded seat.
The business also carries "cruisers" or "coasters" - bicycles featuring a simple design, one speed and foot brakes.
Kid's bikes are also available, along with two-wheeled trailers that attach to the back of the bicycle.
Helmets are included in all bike rentals. Rates are $7.50 per bike for each two-hour period.
Bicyclists can tackle all or part of the 5.5-mile Greenbelt, which meanders through town, by Reedy Creek and the new East Stone Commons, up to the Exchange Place. Cyclists can take a break at East Stone Commons and enjoy a cold drink or ice cream along the way.
Spencer noted that the Greenbelt will eventually be expanded to include nine miles through the city. He said riding the Greenbelt provides a good workout and shows off the natural beauty of the town.
The "ShowDown" Small Business Contest is coordinated by the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development & Entrepreneurship (KOSBE), and sponsored by the Kingsport Times-News and Kingsport Economic Development Board. Contributing sponsors include Express Signs, IntelliThought and Warranty One Mobile Mower Repair.
In the service category, the winner was AYP Mobile Oil Change. Owned by Shelia and Kris Cantu, the business offers routine maintenance and minor repair for automobiles at the customer's site. AYP, which stands for At Your Place, opened earlier this year and services vehicles from across the Tri-Cities region.
In the technology category, the winner was Lucent Glow LLC, located at 2005 Venture Park, Suite 15 and 17, Kingsport. Owned by Wesley Combs, the business specializes in the health care information technology market.
And in the media/communications category, the winner was TriCitiesSports.com, owned by Ron Bliss and Eric Parr. The business is an online sports page and a twice monthly sports newspaper covering local sports.
KOSBE is a program of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the city of Kingsport.
The Small Business Contest has recognized entrepreneurs since it started in 1994. Auto Masters was the first contest winner. The business has since expanded to a new location on Lynn Garden Drive.
In 1995, Wellness Revolution was named the winner. It later went out of business.
In 1996, John Jewett won for his new business, Warranty One Mobile Mower Repair. That business later expanded to a location on Fort Henry Drive. Jewett served as the 2006 contest chairman.
In 1997, the winner was Joe Stallard for Tactical Systems Inc. Stallard later decided to pursue other opportunities.
Dr. Ava Carter won the contest in 1998 for her new business, Carter Chiropractic Clinic.
In 1999, Michelle Smith and Kim Campbell won for their new business, Creative Solutions Design Group, which later disbanded.
In 2000, Mark Reppart won for his business, MR Cleaners. That business has expanded and grown its locations.
In 2001, Ella Adcox won for her business, Effective Fitness, which has expanded into a larger facility along Eastman Road.
In 2002, Robert Basham won for his business, Professional Industrial Solutions, LLC.
In 2003, Fred Cooper and Rick Jennings won for their business, Tennessee Valley Manufacturing Solutions, which has expanded into a new location off Riverport Road.
In 2004, Lesa Brooks won for her business, Decor Exchange, which has since expanded and moved to a new location behind the post office on Eastman Road.
In 2005, the contest expanded to include multiple categories. The winner in the retail category was Danny Karst for his business, Max Max. Russ Davis won in the technology category for his new business, Landmark GIS. And John Humphries won in the services category for his new business, Clean + Safe.