Athens City Council on Monday took a step back from an ordinance appropriating funding for a massive new trail project in the Wayne National Forest in Athens County, but added several amendments intended to allow City Council to keep a closer eye on the finances for the project.
The act of amending the ordinance brought it back to the first reading. Council had been poised to adopt the ordinance two weeks ago before instead deciding to table it.
The main tenets of the ordinance before City Council have not changed significantly, however, despite those amendments.
If approved, the measure will allow the city administration to enter into a contract with the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) to provide $90,000 a year for 20 years – a total that could increase up to $125,000 per year if the trail draws a substantial number of tourists – to fund a several-million-dollar “outdoor recreation environmental impact bond” (plus interest) to build the trail system.
The trail will be called the Baileys Trail System, with its main trailhead in Chauncey, on Ohio Rt. 13 north of Athens, and could become one of the largest such trails in the U.S., with 88 miles of trail proposed. The trail, which is already under construction, has been touted for use by mountain bikers, but it'll be available for all users (hiking, running, etc.).
City Council’s tabling of the ordinance Nov. 4 came amid questions from council members about statistics used to support the project, and questions about what financial burden the city will assume if it ends its financial commitment early. Members asked Athens Mayor Steve Patterson to hire a financial analyst to comb through those numbers.
Patterson said Monday that the analyst he reached out to, Nick Zingale of Novogradac and Company LLP of Cleveland, reviewed the “financial side” of the contract and “didn’t see any problem with it.” He added, however, that Zingale was unable to comment “in any detail” on the estimates provided about the project’s potential to bring in visitors or the amount of economic development it might bring to the area.
Patterson said he realizes that wasn’t the exact answer City Council members were hoping for, but offered a full-throated endorsement of the mountain bike trail project and noted that he has received dozens of emails in support of the project. The big difference enabled by the city’s financial support is making the project a reality in the next two or so years, rather than over the next 10 to 15.
“You’d have a large number of tourists coming early in the game as opposed to over time,” Patterson explained, arguing that the project will bring an immediate impact on the local economy once the trail is completed and word circulates about it.
While City Council members Sarah Grace and Pat McGee said Monday evening that they still had questions about the project, all council members voted to remove the ordinance from the table in order to add several measures introduced by council member Jeff Risner. The measures include:
• The mayor, as a representative of ORCA, would need to receive approval from City Council before any bond is taken out to support the project.
• City Council would need to approve the performance measures used to measure the success of the trail after five years, which is when the city’s contribution could increase up to $125,000 per year.
• For ORCA to provide to City Council a “complete written accounting of all expenditures of funds and activites of ORCA in which city funds were expended” for each year, to be submitted annually by Jan. 10.
THE ATHENS COUNTY Commissioners are delaying their vote on whether to contribute a similar amount to pay for the roughly $3.6 million bond mentioned above until after City Council votes on its ordinance. Commissioner Chris Chmiel said in a public comment during the council meeting Monday that he believes the Commissioners all support the project, and predicts it will have a big impact on the county and region’s economy.
“I just think that tourism is where we’re competitive,” he said. “It’s hard to build big factories in these hills but I think we’re really well situated for 88 miles of mountain biking trail.”
Amy Renner, mayor-elect for the village of Chauncey, said during the meeting that the village has been hit hard by reductions in local government funding from the state of Ohio, and needs help to address aging infrastructure.
She called the trail system an opportunity for economic development that has “serious implications for positive change” for Chauncey and the other communities adjacent to the trail, including Buchtel and Nelsonville.
While the dollar amount is relatively steep for each government to take on, the city and county could halt the agreement at any time, so long as they finish the current year of funding. Council member Sarah Grace during Monday’s meeting, however, questioned what the city’s financial liability will be outside of that.
The funding from the city would come from its transient guest tax revenue, and the intent is for that cost to the city to be “directly tied to the outcomes” of the project, Quantified Ventures representative Seth Brown previously has stated (QV was contracted by the National Forest Foundation in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to conduct a feasibility study project back in 2017).
Brown, who attended the meeting Monday, said he believes that the way the ordinance is written, once the city has terminated the agreement and completed its payment for the rest of the year, the city would not have any more financial liability.
The ordinance, with these new amendments, has now been read for the first time, and will need two more City Council readings before it can be voted on for approval.