The City of Athens has little desire to fund the Baileys Trail System without the help of the Athens County Commissioners, all but guaranteeing the project will likely take several years longer to complete than was originally planned and its potential to impact the region’s economy will at the very least be stymied in the short term.
“Because the financial situation within the city is so precarious that I can’t believe that there would be much appetite to enter into a new agreement that was committing the funds without county involvement,” Councilmember Sam Crowl said in an interview.
City Council President Chris Knisely echoed a similar sentiment, saying she also doesn’t believe her members are eager to put forth additional legislation beyond the ordinance approved last year that committed the city to providing $90,000 annually to the project for the next two decades on the condition that Athens County also pledge the same amount each year.
Nearly a year later, the Athens County Commissioners still haven’t agreed to spend the money annually as the county has experienced financial troubles in recent years and is anticipating an additional budget deficit in the upcoming fiscal year, according to The Athens Messenger.
The city’s yearly contribution to the project would be pulled from a fund comprised of tax dollars collected through people staying in hotels, chosen in hopes that trail goers and other tourists visiting the area would effectively pay for the project in the long term.
The problem is that fewer people are staying overnight in Athens hotels than any other period in recent memory because of the pandemic, significantly decreasing the fund’s balance and making it less likely for City Council to dip into the reserve on its own terms.
“We’re not gonna stand alone and, you know, fund it by ourselves as a city. It needed to be a joint effort between the city and the county,” Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said.
The trail system — expected to be more than 62 miles of mountain biking terrain upon completion and the longest contiguous trail system east of the Mississippi River — still requires more than $2.5 million for its construction, said Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) Director Jessie Powers, who oversees the project. To date, 14 miles of trail have been constructed with another 12 expected to be completed by spring 2021.
The trail has primarily been financed up to this point through state and federal grants, which have often involved both Athens County and the city matching up to tens of thousands of dollars in order to be awarded the money.
The Baileys, 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. Supporters herald the trail system’s potential economic benefits to the region, and opponents have dismissed those projections as wildly unrealistic.
Much of the project was originally planned to be financed using a model created by Quantified Ventures, a Washington D.C.-based capital firm, which involved significant contributions from Athens County and city to help the trail system be built as quickly as possible, which many believe will maximize its potential economic impact on the area through an increase in tourism.
It would take about three years to complete the trail system with all of the available funding secured, Powers said. Without Athens County or city financing it’s not clear exactly how long the project might remain in development, though she expects it could be “a long, hard road” ahead.
Quantified Ventures director Seth Brown, who’s worked closely with the city, county and ORCA in outlining the company’s financing model, said in an interview Thursday it could take up to 10 years to complete the trail system without aid from local governments.
Patterson, the chair of ORCA, said he would be willing to negotiate with ORCA, City Council and the Commissioners to lower the yearly asking price that both entities would need to commit in an attempt to reach a compromise so that some public money will go toward the project rather than none.
Although he said if the financial commitment is too low, it could scare away investment firms that may not be willing to wait as long for a return.
Commissioner Chris Chmiel indicated that he’s in support of financing the trail in some capacity because he believes in its potential to enhance economic development, but said the annual asking price is too high.
Commissioner Charlie Adkins, who comfortably won re-election this year, is less eager to pour money into the project. He said in an interview that he was skeptical of the projections Quantified Ventures laid out for the trail system’s potential economic benefits to the region. Members of City Council last year also expressed doubt in the accuracy of the forecast, but ultimately decided committing to the investment was a worthwhile risk.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason has removed himself from any discussions about funding for the trail system because he is a member of ORCA.
Powers, a former Athens County planner, said she expects to have conversations in the coming weeks with the Athens County Commissioners in an effort to renegotiate their role in financing the trail system.
If the Commissioners decide years down the line that they’re going to commit the annual sum for the trail system, the city is legally obligated through 2040 to provide its end of the deal unless it were to pull out of the agreement or pass legislation that amends or overrides the terms outlined within its ordinance, City Law Director Lisa Eliason said.
Crowl, a self-proclaimed avid bicyclist, indicated it’s possible in the future if and when the city’s finances stabilize that City Council could consider committing money to the project without county support.
Though, that may not be for a while given the pandemic’s economic reverberations are expected to be felt for the foreseeable future, especially in the absence of additional federal aid for city and state governments.
Patterson expressed interested in working with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the General Assembly to help obtain additional funding for the trail system. Rep. Jay Edward (R-Nelsonville), who’s been supportive of the project for years but has taken little action on the matter besides meeting with its leaders, said in a text message that he’s willing to help.
ORCA leaders have in recent months turned some of their attention to raising money through private fundraisers and from big-dollar donors, with one recently raising more than $20,000 and more being explored for the future. State and federal grants also always remain in the cards, Powers said.