With the Baileys Trail System’s financing potentially in jeopardy, project leaders tapped into other avenues to help pay for its construction.
Last week marked the end of a month-long Athens County Foundation fundraiser that raked in more than $10,000 from the Athens County community and bicycle enthusiasts, surpassing its goal to help finance the trail system — expected to be more than 62 miles of mountain biking terrain upon completion and the longest contiguous trail system east of the Mississippi River.
Much of the donations will be matched by Tom and Barb Kostohryz, two Athens-area philanthropists who revel in outdoor recreation, nearly doubling the total amount raised.
“We are hoping to get more locals outdoors, getting more exercise to improve their health and help them enjoy the natural beauty of Southeast Ohio,” the couple said of their donation in a news release. “With a new attraction for the region, we are confident that it will bring many more tourists and biking enthusiasts to our area to help our local economy.”
The recent fundraiser was the first serious attempt by those involved in the trail system’s financing to ask the community for a large sum of money to help pay for general operations and maintenance, among other needs, Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia (ORCA) Director Jessie Powers said.
“We haven’t embarked on something of this scale before, so it was a completely new line of effort for us,” she said in an interview. “It was remarkable to yet again see the Athens County community and the southeast Ohio community step forward.”
The trail system still requires many more millions of dollars to reach completion, which could take longer than projected without the support of local and county government funding. Though grants from the state likely will continue to help finance the project, Powers said.
The Baileys, with its main trailhead in Chauncey and other trailheads in Buchtel and Doanville, has been billed as the brightest current hope for economic development in and around Athens County, among the poorest areas in Ohio. Supporters herald the trail system’s potential economic benefits to the region, and opponents have dismissed those projections as wildly unrealistic.
The system’s projected trails traverse a large area of national forest north of Chauncey, between U.S. Rt. 33 to the west and Ohio Rt. 13 to the east. The name “Baileys” derives from three roads in that area, West Bailey, Big Bailey and Carr Bailey. To date, 14 miles of trail have been constructed with another 12 expected to be completed by spring 2021.
The National Forest Foundation in 2017 hired Quantified Ventures, a Washington D.C.-based capital firm, to conduct a feasibility study into the Baileys Trail System and the ability to finance it using a model that involves significant contributions from Athens County and city.
Company director Seth Brown previously said that the city and county funding will help the trail be built as quickly as possible, which will maximize its potential economic impact on the area. Without the funding, it could be seven or more years before the project is completed, and that would all depend on grant money and other sources.
Athens City Council last year agreed to pay $90,000 annually to ORCA over the next 20 years on the condition that Athens County also commits the same amount of money.
Nearly a year later, The Athens County Commissioners still haven’t agreed to spend the money annually, though in July they approved $35,000 to match a federal grant for the trail system and to compliment The City of Athens’ grant matching payment, according to The Athens Messenger.
With little signs of movement on the part of the county commissioners, it’s no longer clear whether the trail system will be built within the timetable outlined by Quantified Ventures. And the project’s leaders fear the city will pull out of the agreement as a result.
Powers, a former Athens County planner, said she expects to have conversations in the coming weeks with The Athens County Commissioners in an effort to renegotiate their role in financing the trail system. Without their support, the future of the project moving forward will be “a long, hard road,” she said.
“I feel like this is one of the greatest opportunities we’ve had here in front of us here in a long time,” Powers said. “I’m not aware of any other economic generating opportunities of this size and scale, so for them not to invest in this seems, I mean, borderline negligent as a public servant.”
Last year, the commissioners didn’t believe the county could afford to pay $90,000 per year or more for the next two decades to help fund construction of the trail system.
Commissioner Chris Chmiel said in an interview Tuesday he’s in support of financing the trail in some capacity because he at least in part believes in its potential to enhance economic development, but said the annual asking price is too high.
“I just want to be efficient and I don’t want to be wasteful … I guess in my own personal business experience, you know, you can borrow a bunch of money but that doesn’t always necessarily translate into ‘that was a good decision,’” he said.
Commissioner Charlie Adkins is less eager to pour money into the project. He said in an interview Monday that he was skeptical of the projections Quantified Ventures laid out for the trail system’s potential economic benefits to the region. Members of City Council last year also expressed doubt in the accuracy of the forecast, but ultimately decided committing to the investment was a worthwhile risk.
Commissioner Lenny Eliason has removed himself from any discussions about funding for the trail system because he is a member of ORCA.
Rob Delach, the Athens Bicycle Club communications officer who donated $1,000 to the fundraiser, said the trail system’s construction ideally should be sustained through grants and financial assistance from Athens County and city in order for it to move forward as planned. Though, he indicated that private fundraising could be a lucrative supplement.
“The county really needs to step up because this is the best opportunity we have in this county for economic development,” Delach said.