Jack The Bike Man racing against deadline, needs millions for renovations to new home
Updated: Apr 17
THE CLOCK IS ticking on Jack The Bike Man.
“Jack The Bike Man,’’ as Samuel H. Hairston III is known around West Palm Beach, says he is doing just fine these days, at least as fine as anyone who’s “a young 81” can be doing.
But Jack The Bike Man, the self-named charity he started nearly a quarter century ago, is pedaling toward an uncertain future, which would seem unusual considering how his nonprofit purchased a permanent home only two years ago.
The problem, though, is that the new home, an old Cheney Bros. warehouse at 426 Claremore Drive on the edge of the city’s Flamingo Park neighborhood, is sitting empty because it needs about $5 million in renovations.
Neither “Jack the Bike Man'' the person nor Jack the Bike Man the charity has the money. And on top of that, the landlord of JTBM’s current temporary location, a smaller building next door at 420 Claremore Drive, wants the bike charity out by the end of the year.
If JTBM can’t raise enough money in the coming months to pay for minimal renovations, which would allow the charity to partially move into its new 21,000-square-foot home, Hairston hesitates to guess where it might be a year from now.
“We will be homeless again,’’ he said, referring to the nomadic endurance of his popular charity over the past 24 years, with seven moves along an 8-mile stretch of U.S. 1.
“I need a miracle from someone who will take a chance with some interim funding,’’ he said.
If you know Hairston, you know he believes in miracles.
He’s been blessed with two: Forty years ago he got sober and 24 years ago he performed a random act of kindness that would change thousands of lives, including his own.
That random act of kindness — repairing the bicycle of a stranger who crashed on the street in front of Hairston’s house — lifted “Jack The Bike Man” out of a suicidal depression in 1999 and gave birth to a cherished community charity that donates thousands of bicycles to needy children and provides bike-repair training for adults.
The journey of “Jack The Bike Man’’ is at the heart of an ambitious fund-raising campaign to steer Jack The Bike Man toward a stable self-sustaining future.
Launched three months ago by the non-profit management consulting firm PJL Associates, the campaign’s long-term goal is $10 million, which would convert the two-story warehouse into a thriving community center anchored by a nonprofit bicycle shop.
But the short-term goal — a super short-term goal and the campaign’s most important step — is to raise at least $2.5 million over the next few months. That would allow JTBM to pay for the bare-bones construction needed to move the charity into its new home by the end of the year.
“Right now that's my personal goal, to get the contractors working,’’ he said. “We hope to get the bike area functioning and worry about the offices down the road.’’
Just starting the basic structural renovations could provide a boost for the campaign, the sight of the initial construction activity perhaps convincing potential donors that the charity is serious about its future.
“That would send a pretty loud message to the local community that we are making the right steps to get the organization moving forward,’’ said Woo Joo Han, a JTBM board member.
“This will be our home,’’ said Han, a banker with JP Morgan Private Bank in Palm Beach. “We want to do it very thoughtfully and make sure we are doing it right, not only for the organization but for donors as well.’’
The construction permits for the work have already been issued. All that’s needed is money to start the renovations.
“People don't want to invest money in a building that’s been sitting there with nothing happening. They want to see some action, and I don't blame them,’’ Hairston said.
“That's why I want to get in there and get started and then hopefully we will be able to easily get the rest of the money we need.’’
JTBM’s unusual dilemma — owning a new home but not being able to afford to pay for the renovations needed to move into it — can be blamed in large part on the pandemic and inflation.
JTBM purchased the 426 Claremore building in February 2021 for $2 million, thanks to a $1.5 million gift from the Mary Alice Fortin Foundation. Jack The Bike Man kicked in $100,000 and financed $400,000 with a mortgage, Hairston said.
At the time, JTBM’s board thought the renovations of the two-story building would cost about $2 million. But the budget quickly rose to $5 million because of inflation and rising construction costs spurred by the pandemic, the same issues plaguing construction projects across Florida.
Meanwhile, JTBM was facing another challenge.
In September, the bike charity was forced to vacate its previous home, a warehouse on Florida Avenue a few blocks south of Claremore Drive, because the landlord was refurbishing the building for use as an art gallery.
Hairston quickly set his sights on a new temporary home, an empty one-story building at 420 Claremore Drive, west of Bedner’s Farm Fresh Market and east of the two-story building Jack The Bike Man purchased in 2021 for its permanent home.
Just after Labor Day 2022, JTBM signed a six-month lease for $12,500 a month at 420 Claremore Drive. At the time, Hairston said he knew the cost estimates for the renovations at 426 Claremore were rising, but he didn’t think it would be $5 million. And he still thought the work could be completed in six months.
The lease expired in February with no major work started on JTBM’s permanent home. The landlord, NDT Development, agreed to extend the 420 Claremore lease month to month. But a company partner also told Hairston the building needs to be vacated before 2024.
“We need to be out of there by the end of this year and it's creeping up a lot faster than I want it to,’’ Hairston said.
Allen Gast of Gast Construction Group, which is handling the renovations, said there’s still time to start and finish the bare-bones work that would allow JTBM to occupy the building by 2024.
That first-phase work includes restoring some of the concrete columns and support beams in the 1925 building, replacing parts of the floor, adding electrical and HVAC infrastructure, installing a new fire sprinkler and preparing the walls for new doors and windows, Gast said.
“There is a lot that can get done by the end of the year. There is still time if we get started quickly,’’ he said. “I am not waiting for the city at this point. I am waiting for Jack to say go.’’
But Hairston still can’t afford to green-light the construction work.
His charity is looking for new board members from different professions who can help with the fundraising campaign. But not much thought has been given to a Plan B.
“I don't think we can afford another move to temporary space. I think this is our final shot to get in there,’’ said Alex Hernandez, director of operations at JTBM.
“Not to say we are putting all our eggs in one basket, but we kind of are, trying to get in there,’’ he said.
“Everything has been leading up to this moment. It would be a huge letdown if we can't get into the building.’’
Han, the board member, sounded an optimistic tone when he was asked about JTBM’s next steps if the basic move-in renovations aren’t completed by 2024 and the charity is forced to leave its current temporary space.
“Do I think it's in jeopardy? I don't think so. Jack has such strong support from the community that I think he would be able to pivot and make a move if the current building wasn't ready,’’ Han said.
“If you know Jack's story, you know he's an incredibly resilient person. I never would bet against Jack.’’
When “Jack the Bike Man’’ says Jack The Bike Man saved his life, he’s not embellishing.
Born in New Orleans, he enrolled at Louisiana State University in 1960 to study landscape architecture. “I learned how to be an excellent alcoholic,’’ he said.
He dropped out and went on to work at a variety of jobs — as a landscape architect, in a furniture shop and as a designer of wallpaper and area rugs — while battling alcohol demons.
Hairston was 41 when he stopped drinking in 1982. He credits his sobriety to “spiritual” guidance from Alcoholics Anonymous. But alcoholism had taken a toll on his body and led to health issues.
By 1993, medical disabilities prevented him from working full-time, he said.
“From 1993 to 1999, I had no income. I was selling family heirlooms for pennies on the dollar. I was living in my house with no lights, no water, no television,’’ he said. “I was washing myself with rainwater out of barrels under my eaves.’’
By 1999, “I couldn't take it any longer,’’ he said. “I decided I wanted to commit suicide.’’
He said he’d started researching ways to make his death look like an accident when one day, as he sat on his front porch, he watched a Guatemalan teen from the neighborhood fall off his bicycle.
The bike had no brakes and “the little brat” was using the curb in front of Hairston’s house to stop. A pair of pliers and a screwdriver happened to be on the porch. Hairston grabbed the tools and repaired the brakes.
The next day, he heard a knock on the door. Two more teens with broken bicycles were asking for repairs.
Word got around about the kind neighbor with a knack for fixing bicycles. The sight of Hairston repairing bikes in his front yard prompted more strangers to show up with broken bikes.
That first year, Hairston fixed about 25 bikes and found new meaning in his life.
He started building an army of volunteer bike repairmen, from Guatemalan teens after school to bike-savvy retirees on weekends. Donations of bikes, brand-new and used, started coming in. He launched an annual Christmas bike giveaway.
One day in 2002, WPTV reporter Jaime Holmes showed up to do a story and dubbed Hairston "Jack the Bike Man” on a feature broadcast. The name stuck.
“A.A. saved me the first time and the kids did it the second time,’’he said, referring to his new bicycle friends.
Soon, Hairston found himself serving as a bicycle repairman, social worker and neighborhood activist taking on slumlords, hookers and drug dealers.
When thieves started stealing bikes from his yard, Hairston moved into donated spaces in Old Northwood. But the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 blew the roofs off the buildings, forcing him to start renting space for his enterprise in 2006.
He was once beaten up by “thugs” after surprising the thieves just after midnight as they were making off with bicycles in his shop on Broadway.
But he has persevered, often at his own expense.
One year, when he was hurting for the usual cash he could count on for his annual Christmas giveaway, Hairston refinanced his home and became the anonymous Santa who purchased $5,000 in new bikes.
In 2007, a lawyer friend donated his time to set up the nonprofit corporation, Jack the Bike Man Inc. At first, the charity focused on collecting bikes to be donated to children but soon expanded into a bicycle education center offering training and employment for adults in need.
When the economy collapsed in 2008, Hairston started selling adult bicycles to support the charitable work of his organization.
But most of the bikes donated to JTBM are given back to the community through school programs such as “Earn a Bike,” “Character Counts” and “Gotta Get a Bike.’’
JTBM also works with the Palm Beach County Drug Court to provide community service hours in exchange for volunteer work. And the charity provides bicycles for institutions working to combat mental illness, chronic illnesses and addiction.
Hairston said he started the programs to attract grants to help sustain his bicycle-education charity. Those programs have blossomed into life-changing tools and made JTBM an essential community fixture, even if it has been forced to bounce from location to location over the years.
“It is so much more than just a bike shop,’’ said P.J. Layng, who’s leading the fundraising campaign.
For Hairston, getting bicycles to people who need them is a passion project with priceless spiritual rewards.
As he told a Palm Beach Post reporter in 2021, “I'm old. Most of my friends are dead. So why not hang out in a bike shop and help kids.”
One day earlier this month, Hairston led a tour of the empty warehouse at 426 Claremore Drive.
“Welcome to the future home of Jack the Bike Man,’’ he said, excitedly looking past the cracked concrete beams and rotting wooden floor boards to his vision of the renovated warehouse’s future.
Large windows will replace two warehouse garage-style doors. The exterior walls will feature cheerful bicycle murals by artist Eduardo Mendieta, including an expansive one next to the railroad tracks carrying Brightline trains.
“There will be classrooms to teach bicycle mechanics,’’ he said. “When the classrooms are not in use they can be used for neighborhood meetings or the local knitting circle or book clubs. Almost like a community center.’’
Hairston knows $10 million is a huge ask. It’s also an investment in the community’s future, offering JTBM “a little bit of a security blanket,’’ he says, “a little bit of breathing space so I can sleep well at night.’’
The money will cover not only renovations; it will allow JTBM to pay off a $400,000 mortgage on the warehouse, hire 10 more employees and expand the charity's valued community programs.
But until the donations start coming, his vision of a bustling community center anchored by a bike shop will remain just a vision.
“I'm cautiously optimistic that some way, somehow, it's going to get done,’’ Hernandez said.
JTBM’s current landlord, NDT Development, understands what the charity means to the community. That’s why the company agreed to the six-month lease after Hairston “begged us to use” the building, said Ned Grace, a partner with NDT Development.
“We want to be helpful and we want to be good neighbors,’’ said Grace, whose company is building the NORA residential and retail development along North Railroad Avenue just north of downtown.
But the company has at least two potential plans for the 420 Claremore building, which it paid $2.2 million for in May 2022: Converting it into a restaurant and retail or selling it.
“Either way, the clock is ticking,’’ Grace said. “We’re not doing anything before the end of the year, but he’s got to be out relatively soon. It's not going to be forever.’’
Hairston, who turns 82 this fall, said he’s trying to take it one day at a time. “The future is stressful rather than in jeopardy,” he said with a nervous laugh.
He knows Jack The Bike Man’s permanent home will be a monument to his legacy.
And while the $10 million fundraising campaign may seem daunting, he’s hoping it turns out to be just another challenge like all the others he’s managed to overcome in the 24 years JTBM has been around.
“It's been an interesting journey. I guess that keeps me going,’’ he said. “I'm determined to get in that building and I don't want to run out of time.”
Take a video tour of Jack The Bike Man's new home:
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.