Athens City Council had a rare divided vote on Monday, voting 4-2 (with one abstention) to temporarily table an ordinance that would have entered the city into a $90,000 – or more – per-year commitment to a massive new mountain bike trail system in parts of the Wayne National Forest to the north of Athens.
At-Large City Council Members Pat McGee and Sarah Grace both expressed concerns about being unable to verify some of the statistics used to support the project, with council members Chris Fahl and Jeff Risner joining them in the vote to table the ordinance. Council members Sam Crowl and Kent Butler voted against the tabling motion, while council member Peter Kotses abstained from the vote and didn’t participate in the discussion (more on that later).
City Council members said they hope to bring the ordinance up again for a final vote on Nov. 18, after the city hires a private, third-party financial consultant to review the statistics and methodology used to support the 88-mile trail project. It’s currently under construction using grant funds and other sources.
Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said during the meeting that he will work as quickly as possible to get a financial analyst – who has been recommended to him – under contract.
The ordinance before City Council would allow the city administration to enter into a contract with the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) to provide $90,000 a year over the next 20 years – a total that could increase to $125,000 per year if the trail draws a lot 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 Mountain Bike Trail System, with its main trailhead in Chauncey, north of Athens, and could become one of the largest such trails in the U.S.
Many area residents voiced support for the project during Monday’s meeting, with Grace, McGee and other members of council making a point to say that they support the project but want to be careful stewards of taxpayer money.
“As member McGee said, I also have been reading and reading and reading and thoroughly analyzing, trying to understand the numbers that have been provided to us, and I’ve found multiple cases where there are inconsistencies,” council member Grace said.
Danny Twilley, an assistant professor of recreation and sport pedagogy at Ohio University, said during the meeting that he believes the project will be very successful, based on multiple case studies he has reviewed (and which he provided to council). The vote to approve that large an amount of money “takes guts” on the part of City Council, he acknowledged, adding that the project will be critical in helping rejuvenate the area’s economy.
“What else do we have coming down the pipe that’s going to bring people here?” Twilley asked.
Julie Paxton, an OU professor of economics, said that the “pay for success” model in many ways reduces the city’s risk in this project, and said she believes “this is one of the most exciting economic development projects that I’ve seen” for the region.
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 the ordinance. It’s also not clear yet which entity will take out the bond on behalf of the project (which will be used to begin construction of the trail, and will be purchased by private investors), although the Athens County Port Authority is one agency that has been mentioned.
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, Mayor Patterson confirmed during a City Council meeting in October.
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 at 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).
Brown said Wednesday that he welcomes the outside financial review of the project, though he noted that outside agencies, including the Appalachian Regional Commission, already have analyzed and agree with QV’s assessment of the positive impact of the project.
The total project is set to cost $12 million or more, and already has received a significant amount of grant funding to make it a reality, Brown has stated. OU’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs is also set to study the tourism impacts of the trail, and will measure the amount of dollars brought to the region, though nothing has been formalized yet on that front, Brown said in a previous interview.
Brown in a presentation to City Council in September said that according to a feasibility study that QV conducted, the trail could bring in 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 and roughly $8.6 million increase in local wages over the first 10 years.
Those are the statistics that McGee and Grace questioned, noting the absence of any guarantee that that number of visitors will come to the Athens area.
McGee, who lost his re-election bid Tuesday, raised the alarm last week about the project’s supporting statistics not adding up, and also alleged that “several politicians and others using corporate names have already purchased land there” in Chauncey.
At-large City Council member Peter Kotses confirmed in an email Saturday morning that he bought two houses on one parcel in Chauncey with a partner two and a half years ago, "well before Quantified Ventures was assigned to this project and after the master plan was released" for the project. He added that he's not aware of any other elected officials who have bought property in the area recently.
"I announced this (property ownership) months ago prior to a council meeting so all members are aware of this," Kotses explained. "I will continue to state that for the project I built the community connections and brought many different organizations to the table that believe a lasting asset from the trail system runs in line with their mission."
As The NEWS previously reported, 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 goes up for third reading next week, as was the case in the tabling ordinance Monday evening.
He confirmed in an interview in early October 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.