Supporters of an 88-mile mountain bike trail system planned for the Wayne National Forest made some progress toward creating the trail system during 2019, but the biggest step forward was the promise of funding from Athens City Council.
The Baileys Trail Project has been heralded as the next economic boom for Athens County, with supporters estimating that at least 180,000 visitors will come to utilize the purpose-built trail by year seven — other supporters have said this is a understated estimate.
The trail, once built, would be one of the longest connected trail systems east of the Mississippi with various levels of trail difficulties, and will be within 250 miles of around 15 percent of the U.S. population, which could bring in mountain bikers. The goal is to create a destination trail that bikers, hikers and nature-lovers travel to from around the country, if not world.
Many of the parties involved with on-the-ground work, including the U.S. Forest Service and Paige Alost of the Athens County Visitors Bureau, have noted interest from groups and individuals across the country and in various levels of importance.
With trailheads planned for the villages of Chauncey, Buchtel and also Doanville, the hope is the trails bring in upwards of $24.8 million in economic spending, as well as 62 promised jobs and government revenue from the tourism.
Overall, the project is expected to cost $11.2 million. The city of Athens has promised $1.8 million over the next 20 years, and a multitude of grants have been awarded or promised to the project. About $4.7 million is expected in future grant funding, and about $3.3 million has been received from investors. Baileys Trail Project supporters say the local governments will be repaid through sales tax, the transient guest tax and proposed parking revenue.
Currently, the hope is for the Athens County Commissioners to vote in favor of also supplying $90,000 annually for 20 years — matching the city of Athens.
However, it appears less and less likely that the Athens County Port Authority will issue bonds if the city continues to have a 90 day withdrawal clause. The withdrawal measure was granted to the city, allowing the governmental body to leave the contract with little financial repercussion.
Whether the commissioners are willing to also risk $1.8 million in funding this project also remains to be seen, even though the commissioners have voiced their support of the project in numerous public meetings. Commissioner President Lenny Eliason has withdrawn himself from all conversations, as he sits on the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia and would have a conflict of interest.
Commissioner Chris Chmiel has voiced his continuous support of the project, and previously indicated that he would be willing to vote in favor of the spending.
Commissioner Charlie Adkins has been spending the last few weeks seeking more information about the project, and also seeking information on whether the county would be allowed a similar withdrawal clause as the city of Athens.
In late December, the commissioners were invited to a meeting at the Baileys’ Chauncey trailhead where almost all stakeholder groups were present. The stakeholders provided the commissioners with an update and rundown of the project. A subsequent meeting the week after involved even more stakeholders and Athens County economic specialists.
Alost, executive director of the Athens County Visitor’s Bureau, said that there are about 780 rooms available each night in Athens county — 700 of which are hotel rooms, and about 80 or so Airbnb’s exist to make up the rest. She noted that it would take about 57,780 rooms annually — 214 rooms per night for nine months — to generate just over $54,000 in county sales tax if the average daily rate was $75.
However, the transient guest tax would be split with the city of Athens for all stays within the city limits. With that limitation, Alost calculated that it would take about 80,000 rooms annually — 296 rooms per night for nine months — to generate $90,000 if the average daily stay rate was $75.
She called the amount “not undoable.”
Sara Marrs-Maxfield, executive director of the Athens County Economic Development Council, remained cautious that the Commissioners would be able to issue bonds at all.
“No one is going to issue bonds without a secure payer,” she noted. The concern of not having a secure payer comes from a clause the city of Athens was able to include in its contract with Quantified Ventures, the financial company working on the project, to allow the city almost complete assurance it will be able to pull out at any time.