Various local governments and Ohio University are tentatively planning to come together in a council of governments that would facilitate planning efforts for the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail system.
The proposed 88-mile trail system would be located in the Wayne National Forest, and would encompass more than 9,200 acres of land, including trailheads in local communities such as Chauncey and Buchtel.
The council of local governments – dubbed the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) – would be a mechanism by which the various governing bodies most impacted by the project could work together to make plans and consider funding options for the project.
“This council of governments would be a way for us to more forward with what’s a combination of a conservation project, outdoor recreation, and also provides… economic benefit to several of the communities where these trailheads are located,” Athens City Council President Chris Knisely said during a council meeting in April.
Parties listed in the agreement include the city of Athens, Athens County, the city of Nelsonville, the village of Chauncey, Dover Township, York Township, the village of Buchtel and Ohio University.
So far, the Athens and Nelsonville city councils each have passed legislation to authorize a city representative to join the emerging ORCA, and the Athens County Commissioners are expected to consider similar legislation in the next few weeks.
Knisely and other regional government officials have said there is no financial obligation involved with joining ORCA.
Athens City Council members voted nearly unanimously for Mayor Steve Patterson to join ORCA on May 6 (at-large Council member Peter Kotses, who is a member of the Athens Bicycle Club, abstained), making Athens the first official member. Nelsonville is now the second, as Nelsonville City Council members voted unanimously on Monday evening for City Manager Chuck Barga to join ORCA.
Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason confirmed last Friday that the Commissioners will take up the issue “in the next week or two.” Meanwhile, Chauncey Mayor Bob Mattey confirmed in an email Monday that no decisions have yet been made by his Village Council.
“The concept of the council of governance was introduced at our last meeting,” Mattey stated in the email. “...We need more information from the group before we can proceed with a decision.”
Ohio University representative Carly Leatherwood confirmed in an email Wednesday that the university is positive about the council of governments but is still considering its role, if any, in ORCA.
“University leadership is very supportive of this project and proud of the work our faculty and students have contributed to this wonderful project,” Leatherwood said. “Regarding the Council of Governments, we have been approached and are examining if the university is able to join in that capacity given that we are not a political subdivision.”
State law authorizes political subdivisions to form Councils of Governments, she explained.
None of the Dover Township Trustees responded to a request for comment before The NEWS’ print deadline on Wednesday. The NEWS has not yet reached out to officials from York Township or the village of Buchtel.
Planning for the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail system has been ongoing for more than four years, according to Knisely. The Wayne National Forest approved the project in December 2017, after the National Forest Foundation contracted Quantified Ventures, an impact investment company based in Washington, D.C., to assess the feasibility of using a Pay For Success (PFS) model to fund recreational infrastructure. The Baileys project was selected out of proposals from 13 national forests to be the first case for the experimental funding method.
The total estimated cost for the project is $10 million. Athens Council member Kotses said in a brief interview Saturday that $300,000 has been committed to the project so far: $150,000 through the U.S. Department of Transportation Recreational Trails grant program, and $150,000 from REI Corporate.
Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service and other partners, including the Athens Bicycle Club and OU, already have invested about $800,000 toward initial planning efforts such as trail plan development, an environmental analysis, and a PFS financing pilot (according to an informational handout from the U.S. Department of Agriculture dated September, 2018).
Debbie Phillips, chief executive officer for Rural Action, confirmed Monday that the nonprofit has submitted a grant application to the Appalachian Regional Council for $1.2 million to contribute to the project.
“We did submit an application that is working with a lot of partners throughout the region," Phillips told The NEWS Monday evening, adding that the grant application is focused on supporting regional entrepreneurs and business opportunities related to the Baileys system.
“Our interest, and what a lot of the other partners in the project are interested in, is really supporting local people and local businesses,” Phillips said. She said the nonprofit won't know whether or not the grant will be awarded for the project until sometime this fall.
Seth Brown, director for Quantified Ventures, said Tuesday that the PFS model would be used to fund a portion of the project, “leveraging grants, philanthropic and public capital.”
Quantified Ventures is not an investor, as Brown said some have misunderstood, but a company that identifies investors who will agree to be repaid by the success of a project, not monetarily.
“Investors are willing to do that… because this is something that they care about,” Brown said. “And the impact is important to them.”
No investors have yet committed to support the project. “You can’t put something in front of investors until we have all the details… but we have people waiting,” Brown said, adding that investors “are excited about this project because of what it will provide” to the region, in terms of economic benefits.
Brown said Quantified Ventures would work with ORCA members on the financing portion of the Baileys project, but would not have a permanent role in the ORCA.
Dawn McCarthy of the U.S. Forest Service said during an Athens City Council meeting on April 8 that the Forest Service supports ORCA.
“We see that it is larger than just the Baileys project,” McCarthy said, adding that the $10 million cost estimate “is not just for the Baileys but it’s for the bikeway extension into Chauncey and some of the other community improvements we’re looking at in Chauncey. So we are looking at the council of governments helping us create a vehicle to where the local governments can work together, not just on the Baileys project, but across boundaries.”
McCarthy named Sells Park in Athens (a city park) and Strouds Run State Park as a couple of potential areas for future projects for which ORCA could facilitate planning.
“Really, the Baileys is just the catalyst to get this conversation going,” McCarthy said.
Details of how public monies would be used to fund the project are still up in the air.
“I think intentionally, the money piece, as far as who’s going to be obligated for what, has been talked about in very loose terms,” Athens City Prosecutor Jesse Branner said during that same City Council meeting in April. “…Nothing’s really final yet, but the understanding is that the city of Athens is just a player with several other folks, including the county… The city’s not going to be left holding the bag… We’re either all in this together and we’re all doing it, or nobody’s doing it,” Branner said.
According to City Council President Knisely, the city and county would collectively be expected to contribute between $1.2 million and $1.4 million over a seven-year timeframe.
“The portions that they’re talking about now would be the interest only, if other monies were borrowed to help pay for the project,” Knisely said at the April 8 meeting.
Athens Mayor Patterson said during that meeting that interest payments are expected to be between $50,000 and $60,000 annually for that seven years.
“The only place that I can see this money coming from… (is) from the bed tax, (or) transient guest tax,” Patterson said, explaining that the transient guest tax is paid by people who stay in hotels and bed and breakfasts within the city, and is split between the city and the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“It brings in, on average, about $440,000 total, of which half of that, $220,000, give or take, goes to the Convention & Visitors Bureau and the remainder goes into our General Fund,” Patterson said.
The city of Athens, however, has not yet committed to any funding.