A plan to build a new system of mountain-biking trails throughout the Wayne National Forest could come to fruition much sooner than originally expected.
A new funding strategy would make it possible to finish the new trails and trailheads in close to a year, according to Athens City Council member Peter Kotses.
“Theoretically, a project this size, we can get it built probably in about 10 years,” Kotses said. “The whole idea of impact investing is so you can speed up that process.”
Impact investment refers to an arrangement in which a private investor would provide money for a project that in return would create some positive impact.
“The project doesn’t start to get paid off until it reaches certain metrics agreed upon by the investors,” Kotses said. “They’re looking for a payback or… a return on their investment,” but that return could be derived from the overall benefits of the project, he explained.
Originally, the Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System was intended to be completed in phases as funding was found for each section, Kotses said. That was the plan before the National Forest Foundation hired Quantified Ventures, an impact-investing advisory firm, to find an impact-investment plan to fund recreational infrastructure. The foundation accepted submissions for potential projects from 13 national forests, The Athens Messenger reported last week.
The winner was Baileys, which would connect small communities in northwestern Athens County – including Chauncey, Doanville, New Floodwood and Buchtel – with trails fit for mountain-bike riders of varying skill levels.
“We beat out everyone else in the U.S. that had applied for this program,” Kotses said. “So, we are the pilot for this kind of route for seeking funding” for recreational infrastructure projects.
Kotses said one practical example of impact investment in action is its application to the Meals on Wheels program, an example he said was used by Quantified Ventures representative Seth Brown during his presentation on impact investment last week. The company managed to prove that Meals on Wheels benefited a health-insurance provider because those who utilized the service fell ill less often. Because the money the insurance company saved was greater than the organization’s debt, the company agreed to repay the organization’s private investors, Kotses said.
Quantified Ventures is currently conducting a feasibility assessment to determine if the impact-investing method can be applied to Baileys Mountain Bike Trail System. “It’s easy for them to find investors (for projects),” Kotses said. “The biggest thing is trying to find the people to pay it off.”
Until the assessment is complete, which should be in April, according to The Messenger, Kotses said the organizers won’t know whether they can use impact investment or not.
“I’m an optimist,” the City Council member said. But Kotses, who is also a member of the Athens Bicycle Club, added, “Our group is still working on looking at our fundraising possibilities… Even though we’ve spent a lot of time working with Quantified Ventures… we’re not putting everything on hold waiting for the phone call.”
The Athens Bicycle Club is just one group that has helped organize the project. “We’ve been the lead on the community side,” Kotses said, adding that the group has been engaged in conversations on the subject with many other groups and community members as well. Other groups that have been helping with the project include the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Athens City-County Health Department, Athens County government leadership and the U.S. Forest Service, The NEWS previously reported.
If the impact-investment plan falls through, Kotses said the project would have to be completed in stages, adding that 10 to 15 miles of trail per year is a “realistic and feasible” rate of completion.
Kotses said the trail would be “both economically and physically” beneficial to the community. He mentioned the health benefits that trails like these could have for regional residents, as well as the economic benefits of attracting people to the area. “People want to live where they have access to these kinds of things,” he said.
The planned 88 miles of trail could be “the largest piece of continuous property” east of the Mississippi River, Kotses said, and such a landmark would make Athens a competitive “recreation destination, tourist economy,” with businesses “set up to support tourism.”
Additionally, the new trails could make Athens a desirable spot for larger businesses. For major retailer Amazon, which has been on the market for a new headquarters location, Kotses said recreation was one of the criteria for a city to even be considered by the company.
“If you couldn’t really prove that you had a world-class recreation (industry)… Amazon wasn’t even looking at your location,” Kotses said.
“You look at Bentonville, Arkansas (location of Walmart headquarters)... They have invested millions into trail systems to make sure that their employees that they want to attract have a quality of life that they want,” Kotses said. “When I’m looking at what we can achieve in the city or the region compared to what (larger cities) can do… For the little guy to win one, you’re like, ‘That’s pretty cool.’”
Because of that “cool” factor, Kotses said he’s proud of the Baileys Trail plan and the organizers for being “together” enough to champion the National Forest Foundation’s call for submissions. “We were selected over everybody else who submitted in the United States,” Kotses said. “Even if we don’t get the funding… We should be proud of what we accomplished, especially in such a short amount of time.”