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Ohio’s premiere mountain bike trail faces funding challenge

Two mountain bikers ride on a dirt trail through a green forest.
Baileys Trail System Facebook
The Baileys Trail System is a newly developed mountain bike trail through a section of the Wayne National Forest. The Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia, the council of governments that constructed the trail, hopes investing in outdoor recreation will lead to regional economic development.

On a spring day in the Wayne National Forest, a crew of hard-hat clad volunteers pulls weeds, trims trees and clears branches from a winding dirt trail.

Rob Call is among them.

In the summer, he’ll make the hour-long drive from Lancaster to mountain bike here nearly every weekend.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Typically, if you went to this style of riding or get this many miles, you go to North Carolina or Virginia. But this is in our backyard, so it's super, super nice.”

The Baileys Trail System, a series of professionally designed mountain bike trails with tracks for both beginners and experts, extends for 58 miles through southeast Ohio. Its annual season starts Friday.

The Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia, or ORCA, started building it in 2020, decades after national forest staff noted it would be a great location for mountain biking.

In the coming years, ORCA plans to construct another 30 miles, which the organization claims would make it the largest contiguous trail system east of the Mississippi.

But the goal isn’t just to transform southeast Ohio into a mountain biking destination.

“We're advancing a different approach to economic development for a rural area,” said ORCA executive director Jessie Powers. “We're leading with our asset, which happens to be 9,000 acres of national forest.”

But just a few years into the project, one of ORCA’s largest members, Athens County, declined to recommit funds to it, casting a shadow over the trail system’s future.

Funding a regional trail system

ORCA is a council of six local governments: Athens County, the city of Athens, the city of Nelsonville, York Township and the villages of Chauncey and Buchtel.

The latter four offer in-kind services, while the largest two — the city of Athens and the county of Athens — pay $90,000 in annual membership dues.

“That's really our core and backbone and how we operate,” Powers said. “It also has been the indicator for the level of support that we have here locally.”

A team of four yellow hard-hat clad volunteers walk down a mountain bike trail, tools in hand.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
A team of hard-hat clad volunteers clear a section of the Baileys Trail System ahead of the season's opening day.

In the past, those membership dues have provided a reliable source of funding for operational costs, like staff, and the overhead costs of trail construction. But the dues also help ORCA secure additional grants for things like trail development and local programming.

On top of that, the city’s ability to pay membership dues is tied to the county commissioners’ support. Athens City Council is considering adjusting city code to continue supporting ORCA, but if they fail to do so, ORCA will lose out on the city’s membership dues as well.

So the county’s decision to cut support has significant ramifications.

“It really blindsided us,” said ORCA board member and Chauncey mayor Amy Renner. “I'm worried about ORCA’s future without a reliable source of funding to help support that administrative time that grants don't typically cover.”

Athens County commissioners say it’s time for ORCA to stand on its own.

The county has paid membership dues for the past three years, and it gave ORCA an extra $230,000 last year from its pandemic relief funds.

But this budget cycle, the county needed to cut more than $300,000 in expenditures. It reduced funding for the Department of Job and Family services by about $70,000, it cut more than $140,000 from its contingency line and funds for ORCA too.

“We have to get all the office holders the money they need to operate their offices. We have to pay for the operation and maintenance of the buildings of the county,” Commissioner Lenny Eliason said. “When you look at the things that are not mandated priorities, that's what gets cut first when you have to make decisions like that.”

And Eliason pointed to another issue too. Since ORCA started, it has formally partnered with 17 additional counties across southeast Ohio. Powers says it’s an effort to share resources and lend advice so more communities can leverage outdoor recreation.

But Eliason wonders why they’re not contributing financially too.

“If you're going to start providing services to 15 or 16 counties, you shouldn't be having one county pay for that operation because the county's not getting the full benefit of that,” he said. "[ORCA] needs to have a fair due structure with the different counties and people that they're operating with, and not depend on just two entities for their primary collection of dues.”

A map shows the Baileys Trail System.
Baileys Trail Facebook
A map shows the Baileys Trail System.

Can outdoor recreation spur economic development?

Powers believes the Baileys Trail System is worth long-term investment.

She holds that local governments will see a return on their investment, that the Baileys Trail System has the capacity to attract funds into the historically underinvested region.

“The strategy is to create this top-tier destination that will attract visitation, but also attract public investment and infrastructure,” Powers said.

And the numbers have borne that out so far: an Ohio University analysis found it generated $3.6 million for the Athens County economy in its first year. In ten years, that number is expected to grow to $53 million.

The project has generated revenue for a park and sidewalks in the trailside community of Chauncey.

“It's really exciting for us to see so many people coming to Chauncey to jump on the trails,” Mayor Renner said. “And that is providing us a lot of opportunities for improving our infrastructure and attracting new businesses and just addressing quality of life issues that we want to improve on here. It's giving us a new lease on life.”

Short-term rentals are popping up nearby, and frequent visitors like Rob Call are a boon to local business.

“We always try to stop and spend our money here in town,” Call said.

He knows people who have bought land nearby, purely because of the new trail system.

“We’ve succeeded,” Powers said. “We've secured more than $10.6 million of public investment in the last three years. We've actually achieved every kind of imaginable thing in terms of hard infrastructure that we envisioned for the Baileys Trail system back in 2017.

“So we've succeeded. And it's just now a matter of how we continue to move forward.”

Powers is confident ORCA will figure the budget out. It’s already secured grant funding for projects this year. And the organization is trying to earn money in other ways too — it operates a nonprofit that rents out mountain bikes and it hosts an annual mountain bike race to fundraise.

But those endeavors aren’t very profitable yet.

“So if the county does not pay ORCA, I think this is a pivot point for us,” Powers said. “We can figure out how we continue to operate to get the work done because it really is impactful.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.