Athens City Council voted unanimously Monday to approve funding for the Baileys Trail System, currently under construction on the Wayne National Forest near Chauncey, after several weeks of discussion and language changes to the bill.
The measure has generated substantial local debate, with supporters heralding the trail system’s economic benefits to the region and opponents dismissing those projections as wildly unrealistic. That level of skepticism failed to arise among City Council or audience members at Monday’s meeting, however.
With Monday’s vote, the city of Athens has agreed to pay $90,000 annually to the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) over the next 20 years. That sum could be increased if an evaluation after five years of the project demonstrates that the trail system has generated more success for the region that initially anticipated.
With City Council approval Monday evening, it’s now up to the Athens County Commissioners to vote on whether to commit the same level of support. After a brief discussion on the topic during their meeting Tuesday (Dec. 11), the Commissioners agreed to hold further discussion during their meeting next Tuesday (Dec. 17), after a site visit to the trail.
The trail system, with its main trailhead in Chauncey and other trailheads in Buchtel and Doanville, has been billed as the brightest current hope for economic development in and around Athens County, among the poorest areas in Ohio. The system’s projected trails traverse a large area of national forest north of Chauncey, between U.S. Rt. 33 to the west and Ohio Rt. 13 to the east. The name “Baileys” derives from three roads in that area, West Bailey, Big Bailey and Carr Bailey.
In 2017, the National Forest Foundation hired Quantified Ventures, a Washington D.C.-based capital firm, to conduct a feasibility study into the Baileys Trail System and the ability to finance it using a kind of “pay for success” model. QV Director Seth Brown previously has stated that per that study, the trail system could see an average of roughly 181,000 visitors or more per year once it’s built, with an almost $25 million increase in indirect and direct local spending related to users and roughly $8.6 million increase in local wages over the first 10 years.
Construction of the Baileys – planned to be 88 miles of mountain biking optimized trails also available for non-motorized general use – broke ground in September, according to a previous report by The New Political, an online news-site operated by Ohio University student journalists.
“An historic moment,” declared City Council President Chris Knisely Monday evening amid uproarious applause from a large number of area residents in attendance, all of whom apparently had attended the meeting to show support for the legislation. Immediately following passage of the funding measure, most of the crowd left, leaving only a small handful of citizens and media reporters.
Council member Jeffrey Risner, sponsor of the legislation, said this ordinance has been unique in the public interest that it has garnered, noting that he had never seen anything like it in his tenure on City Council.
“We’ve had other controversies before, but not quite like this,” Risner said.
Council member Patrick McGee, who voted in favor of the ordinance, stated that he always has thought the plan would be great for the community, despite his previously stated apprehension about the project.
“I think it's wonderful; I hope it brings prosperity to Athens and Chauncey and our communities and our county, because we certainly need something like that,” McGee said. “My concern has been through the whole process whether this should proceed through private funding rather than the city of Athens.”
He also expressed concern that the economic numbers presented in support of the project may only serve to further confuse the issue, and that some of the figures presented to Athens city government may have been inflated.
Despite this, he said he feels the Baileys Trail System plan has good prospects for success.
“I am of the opinion that this is still a very good possibility,” McGee said. “I think it’s worth planting seeds of this tree, and even if we take a loss for a little, I think it will be worth it in the long run, at least I hope so.”
Council member Chris Fahl also had expressed doubts throughout the process. Fahl said her largest criticism involved the leadership that had been involved in the Baileys project in the past. She said she wants the process of City Council receiving information streamlined and improved so the city remains in the loop on the project.
“I think we need to identify areas the city can do better in, with providing liaison and being able to follow a long-term project like this,” Fahl said. “[The project directors] have been working on this long-term project for two years – it comes to council, and all of a sudden we have to become specialists.”
She also said the city does not typically enter into 20-year contracts, except with the water treatment facility. She urged that Debbie Phillips, CEO of regional nonprofit Rural Action, be given a more prominent role in ORCA (Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia) leadership.
City Council member Kent Butler expressed continued support for the project. He also stressed the potential health benefits offered by the trail system.
“I’m excited about moving forward and progressing,” Butler said. “I think there’s factors that aren’t always measurable, and I think health and wellness can’t be measured to the nth degree.”
Council member Samuel Crowl said the recent tour given to City Council at the Baileys trailhead in Chauncey helped flesh out his understanding of the project.
“Hearing the people actually run the rails, work on the trails, and hear how they develop them… all of these things together, I’m excited to be a part of it,” Crowl said.
At the meeting, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson spoke in favor of the legislation. He said the plan piqued his interest from the beginning, and he saw possibilities for growth in outdoor recreation and economic development.
“I see this as a regional asset – not something that will just benefit the city of Athens, the village of Chauncey, the township of York Township, Buchtel, Nelsonville,” Patterson said. “But I also see this as something that is desperately needed in southeast Ohio right now.”
He said he hopes to see "water trails" fall under ORCA in the future, to figure out how to use this local asset more effectively. By water trails, the mayor was referring to people traversing the Hocking River and other area waterways in kayaks, canoes, etc.
“On the Athens County end of things, I think there are opportunities in the future with the Baileys being essentially the crown jewel of things as we take a look at other recreational activities throughout our county to make ourselves stronger,” Patterson said. He also noted that ORCA is not exclusively involved with the Baileys Trail System, but other recreation resources in the area as well.
Patterson called it a “solid risk to take” in order to work toward diversifying the local economy.
SETH BROWN, DIRECTOR OF Quantified Ventures, attended the meeting. After the unanimous City Council vote, Brown and the mayor shook hands, and Brown departed.
While most of those present during recent City Council meetings have been demonstrably positive about the trail’s potential, some in The Athens NEWS’comment sections and in “The Athens Voice” opinion column have been far more skeptical. They’ve raised concerns about what they see as high costs to local taxpayers; significantly inflated projections of use and money spent as a result of the trail system; the lack of a guarantee that people will come to visit the system once it’s completed; the potential “gentrification” of hardscrabble villages in the project area; and the amount of carbon debt that the project will create due to visitors traveling long distances to Athens County.
While the dollar amount is relatively steep for each government to take on ($90,000 or more per year), the city included a provision in its ordinance where it could end the agreement with ORCA at any time, so long as it finishes the current year of funding (It’s not clear if the county Commissioners will include a similar provision in their resolution).
Brown said during a brief interview Tuesday that if the Commissioners approve the allocation of the same amount of resources as Athens City Council, the next step will be for ORCA and an advisory committee that works with that council of governments to work with the Athens County Port Authority or the state government to issue debt for the project. Brown described the bond that will be taken out as an “environmental impact bond,” with private investors buying up the debt like a normal bond, and being repaid an amount linked to the relative success of the project.
ORCA’s members are:
• Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason, president
• Athens Mayor Patterson.
• Nelsonville City Manager Chuck Barga.
• Chauncey Village Mayor Bob Mattey, soon to change over to Mayor-Elect Amy Renner-Hudson.
• Timothy Warren, York Township trustee.
Paige Alost, director of the Athens County Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, chairs the aforementioned advisory committee, which is a nine-person group appointed by the board of ORCA, Brown explained. He added that at some point, ORCA likely will hire somebody to run operations for the trail system.
Brown said he’s glad to see City Council’s support for the project.
“It’s a pretty big ask,” he said. “We know budgets are tight but they’re going to be funding this thing. That took a lot of courage and leadership, and I’m really excited.”
DAWN MCCARTHY, A SPOKESPERSON for the Wayne National Forest, said Tuesday that so far, about 11 miles of trail have been completed.
During the county Commissioners meeting Tuesday, Commissioner Eliason recused himself from the discussion on the Baileys Trail System. Commissioners Charlie Adkins and Chris Chmiel both said they favor the project in general, but said they’d likely have more questions for officials working with the trail project during their meeting next week.
The $12 million project has garnered a lot of grant and other funding so far (the Athens city and county governments’ contributions – assuming both are approved – will total about $3.6 million over the 20 years). Athens 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
Phillips of Rural Action, said her organizarion will work with a lot of local partners, including the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) in Athens, to provide support for people in the various “trail towns” located adjacent to the Baileys project to start up and develop their own businesses, with a particular lens on local residents in those towns. Aid will include help with developing business and marketing plans.
“It’s going to be everything from broad conversations in communities about what is possible to really getting into the nitty-gritty with individuals about how they can build up their businesses around these opportunities (presented by the Baileys Trail System)
Note: an early version of this story also appears online at www.thenewpolitical.com. Athens NEWS Associate Editor Conor Morris contributed to this article.