Athens City Council and the Athens County Commissioners have a big decision before them in the coming weeks: whether to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next 20 years toward an 88-mile mountain-biking trail construction project in the nearby Wayne National Forest.
City Council held first reading of an ordinance Monday that would allow the city administration to enter into a contract with the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) to provide $90,000 a year – a total that could increase to $125,000 per year if the trail draws lots of tourists – to fund a several-million-dollar bond (plus interest) to build the trail system. The trail will be called the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System, with its main trailhead in Chauncey, north of Athens.
The County Commissioners will consider a similar resolution after City Council has its second reading of its Baileys ordinance, Commissioner Lenny Eliason said Tuesday.
While the dollar amount is relatively steep for each government to take on, the city and county could terminate the agreement at any time, so long as they finish the current year of funding, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson confirmed during the meeting. He also said there’s nothing preventing the city from seeking grant or other funding sources to help pay for the yearly payments.
The funding from the city would come from its transient guest tax revenue, and the intent is for the cost to the city to be “directly tied to the outcomes” of the project, Quantified Ventures representative Seth Brown said during a presentation to Athens City Council during a meeting in September (QV was contracted by the U.S. Forest Service’s Wayne National Forest to conduct a feasibility study project back in 2017).
The total project is set to cost $12 million or more, and already has received a significant amount of funding to make it a reality, Brown said. Ohio University’s Voinovich School is also set to study the tourism impacts of the trail, and will measure the amount of dollars brought to the region.
Construction already has begun on roughly two miles of the 88-mile trail, City Council member Pete Kotses said in a brief interview Wednesday.
City Council member Patrick McGee voiced concerns about the project cost during the council meeting Monday, noting that there’s no guarantee the project will draw the amount of tourists to the region that organizers hope it will.
“I think it’s a very specialized interest project that doesn’t necessarily benefit all of the citizens of Athens,” he said.
McGee also asked whether the project could be funded without help from Athens. Dawn McCarthy, a public relations officer with the Wayne National Forest, who attended Monday’s meeting, responded that the project will happen eventually, but without the city’s help, it likely won’t be built for 10 to 15 years or more into the future. City Council’s agreement to contribute to the project, along with the county Commissioners, would mean construction could be completed in the next two to three years, which she suggested would mean a more immediate impact on tourism in the region.
McCarthy noted that area nonprofit Rural Action recently was awarded a $1.2 million Appalachian Regional Commission POWER grant related to the project. About $150,000 would go toward trail construction, while the rest would go toward building a larger support system to benefit the economies of the small towns adjacent to the trail project, including Chauncey and Buchtel.
According to the ARC website, that funding could mean “an integrated package of activities to take economic advantage of the trail, such as collaborative marketing, entrepreneurial training and support, trail town place-making, and workforce development,” the website reads. “When complete, the 88-mile mountain bike trail system will attract 181,000 visitors annually, resulting in $20 million of increased spending. The project will lead to the creation of 25 new tourism-related business and the expansion of 50 existing business, the creation or retention of 190 jobs, and $5.7 million in leveraged investment.”
One point of confusion about this process remains, however: Quantified Venture’s Brown said that the bond that ORCA is hoping to take out for trail construction is about $3.6 million. During the September meeting, he told City Council that the city’s contribution would be “a third” of that, about $1.2 million. However, $90,000 annually over the next 20 years would amount to $1.8 million.
McCarthy with the WNF said Wednesday that the $90,000 per-year price tag is taking into account interest paid on the bond over the 20-year time period, so, if the city were to somehow pay off the commitment toward the bond in one go, early on, it would only cost $1.2 million. Plus, money from the city and county payments would also go to fund the operations of ORCA, which would run the trail system, McCarthy said.
McCarthy said there’s plenty of benefits that other regions have seen after installing similarly large mountain biking trails. Danny Twilley, an Ohio University assistant professor in recreation and sport pedagogy, said during the meeting that a similarly sized trail system in northwest Arkansas is seeing between 90,000 and 150,000 visitors per year, with a $27 million impact on that local economy.
Patterson noted that Athens could stand to benefit greatly from tourists coming from across the state and country because of the huge size of the trail. They could partake in local breweries, restaurants and bars, and retail stores while staying the night. He also said the trail could be a big boost to Athens’ economy during the summer months when businesses need help while most OU students are out of town.
Council member Kotses – owner of Athens Bicycle – until recently served in a volunteer capacity with the Baileys project to help connect partners with the Wayne National Forest and others. Yet, he’s been careful to stay out of City Council discussions on the topic, and will not be a voting member when the ordinance is up for third reading. He confirmed that he was hired recently by Applied Trails Research, which created the master plan for the trails, to serve as a liaison between the builders of the trail and the community.
Kotses said Wednesday that the main thing the ARC grant intends to address is that “you can’t just put a trail in.” Infrastructure needs to be built in the area around it, he noted, although it remains to be seen what exactly that will look like.
“You’ve got to market it and tell people it’s there, and then the towns, basically the towns that surround it, are going to turn into gateway communities; they’re going to have more opportunities,” Kotses said.