City Council Athens

From left to right, At-Large Athens City Council members Patrick McGee and Peter Kotses and City Council President Chris Knisely pictured during a City Council meeting from spring 2019. Photo by Conor Morris.

Athens City Council is expected to vote Monday evening on whether to approve a city contract to contribute $90,000 or more per year over the next 20 years to pay for a major mountain-bike trail system in the Wayne National Forest.

One City Council member, however, is asking the city to pump the brakes on the process and table the ordinance, citing the high cost of the project, as well as asking questions about the process and the statistics used to support the project.

The ordinance before City Council on Monday, if passed, will 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 “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., with 88 miles of trail proposed.

At-large Athens City Council member Pat McGee, an independent who is running for re-election, said in a statement posted on his Facebook page last week that he believes there’s “a lot of misinformation if not outright lies” involved around the project.

“I believe the expected number of visitors is highly inflated,” McGee wrote in his statement. “WHERE DO THEY GET THEIR NUMBERS??? (emphasis McGee's) This is in my opinion the big lie. There is a significant difference in the spending attributed to visitors and users. Local users will make up a sizeable figure, and the number of 'visitors' who spend for hotels, meals, etc. will be so much smaller. When will the trail be expected to be open? One or two years from when the city starts paying, with no indication of the actual benefit for several years afterwards.”

McGee said City Council should table the ordinance, consider cutting the city’s contribution in half, and even consider changing the rules of council to require that a “witness” in support of any project be “sworn” prior to giving testimony, and be subject to “criminal penalties if they lie outright.”

McGee also raised the alarm about a potential conflict of interest for public officials working with the project, alleging that “several politicians and others using corporate names have already purchased land there” in Chauncey. McGee declined in a phone call this week to name who allegedly has bought land or housing in the area.

At-large City Council member Peter Kotses said in an email Saturday morning (Nov. 2), after this article appeared online, 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 has 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.

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.

Many eyes will be on City Council for its vote on the ordinance this Monday, considering that 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 so far.

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 a City Council meeting in October. 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 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).

However, according to a copy of the ordinance, the minimum payment the city can make is $90,000 per year; Brown mentioned in an interview today (Friday) a mechanism that could allow for repaying the city some of that money if, after evaluation after seven years, the project is not performing as expected.

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 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, although nothing has been formalized yet on that front, Brown said in a previous interview, partly because City Council and the County Commissioners have not approved any funding yet.

Brown in a presentation to City Council in September explained that after QV conducted a feasibility assessment study, the trail could bring in an average of roughly 181,000 visitors or more per year once it’s been 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 questioned in his statement, noting the absence of any guarantee that that number of visitors will come to Athens.

In response to McGee’s criticism in an interview today, Brown explained that QV conducted an extensive study before citing those statistics. He said QV has studied economic impact reports on roughly 40 or 50 other trail systems, which suggest that, for a trail of this size, it could see between 115,000 and 250,000 visitors per year.

QV also conducted “industry interviews” with some of the major players in the outdoor recreation industry, he said, as well as a marketing size analysis, suggesting that Athens County is uniquely positioned to bring in lots of visitors, with over two million visitors to the Hocking Hills region to the north, its close proximity to Columbus, and Ohio’s position in the Midwest, being within driving distance of a significant portion of the U.S. population.

Brown noted that, in all reality, the trail’s positive impact on the city’s transient guest tax alone could mean a break-even point for the city with its $90,000 contribution per-year, so long as the trail were to bring in an average of between 85,000 and 94,000 visitors per year; it wouldn’t need to reach the 181,000 visitor mark referenced above, Brown said.

Kotses also defended QV's work in an email sent Saturday, noting that QV studied the feasibility of the project for six months.

"...if it wasn’t successful they would have been done with the project at that point," Kotses said.

You can see a copy of Brown's original presentation to City Council attached to this story, as well as a copy of the ordinance that City Council is set to vote on on Monday.

While much of the current discussion about the Baileys trail system is about funding for its construction, local non-profit Rural Action was recently awarded a $1.23 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant to help build the economies of the small towns connected to the system, including Chauncey. We'll have more on that effort in our next paper.

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