Debbie Phillips, CEO of Rural Action, delivered a status update to the Athens County Commissioners Tuesday on a grant-funded economic development project connected to the Baileys Trail System in the Wayne National Forest.
Rural Action is the lead partner on a $1.235 million Appalachian Regional Commission POWER grant that was awarded in October 2019. A small part of the grant, about $250,000, will go toward trail construction in the region, including $150,000 toward the Baileys Trail System, an under-construction 88-mile trail system in the Wayne National Forest with trailheads in Chauncey, Buchtel and Doanville. The Wayne National Forest is taking the lead on that part of the grant.
Phillips explained Tuesday that the economic development project is being taken on by several key local partners including the Athens-based Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Association, Athens High School’s internship program and the Wayne National Forest.
The main thrust of the grant-funded collaborative effort is to make sure that the Baileys Trail System has an impact far beyond just being the largest mountain-biking-optimized trail in the country east of the Mississippi River, Phillips said.
Phillips cited one recent example of a small-scale project supported by the grant funds: training sessions for local residents in communities near the Baileys Trail System on how to use the Airbnb short-term rental system and make money from those operations.
In the future, ACEnet plans to host “pop-up offices” in trail towns such as Doanville, Chauncey, Nelsonville and “some others,” as well as workshops in those towns, in order to walk residents through potential business plans.
Meanwhile, Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Association as well as the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau will work on two different sets of marketing plans. One of those plans, Phillips explained, is focused on drawing visitors to the area from bigger cities, and the other is focused on a “main event plus five” campaign, aimed at bringing people to the region for “one big event” plus five other smaller attractions, such as restaurants or local parks.
Phillips added that another piece of the grant will fund the Wayne National Forest working with the Appalachian Conservation Corps to create temporary jobs connected to trail-building where people can learn skills and gain certifications (such as in chainsaw use, for example).
The grant also will support Athens High School placing 12 paid high school interns per year in different organizations and companies throughout the region for work experience.
Phillips said she hopes that portion of the project will help reinforce the idea among students that “you don’t have to leave Athens to get a job,” and that they can “build a life here.”
In other news, Phillips said the project’s partners have submitted a request to change part of the scope of the grant-funded project to include payment for an executive director position for the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA), which is a council of governments formed by leaders of area government agencies.
Phillips and Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason (a member of ORCA) explained that the Baileys Project has so many different partner agencies that it can be difficult for the ORCA group to manage everything. This is why the executive director position would be helpful (both to manage the project and to help raise funds), they said.
County Commissioner Charlie Adkins said he “struggled to understand” how management of the trail system would work, considering it’s on national forest land.
Dawn McCarthy, a public relations officer with the Wayne National Forest, explained that the Wayne is considering entering into a special-use agreement with ORCA for that group to manage the trail system.
Also during the meeting Tuesday, the county Commissioners asked county Planner Jessie Powers to submit a state capital budget funding request to the Ohio Legislature to provide between $3 million and $3.5 million to ORCA for construction of the Baileys Trail System. This is after Commissioners Chris Chmiel and Adkins previously said they’re not sure the county can afford to provide enough funding for complete construction of the trail on a timely basis (Commissioner Eliason has abstained from those conversations)
Athens City Council already has approved $90,000 per year for 20 years (about $1.8 million total) to fund trail construction. ORCA has requested a similar amount from the Athens County Commissioners.