BURNSIDE - After more than five years of planning, the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) is preparing for a grand opening May 17.

What it needs as it heads into its first full season is support from the local business community.

AOAA Authority Chairman James Backes used a meeting of the Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce at the park's welcome center Tuesday to implore local business people to create economic development from the AOAA.

"We can be business friendly, we can be AOAA friendly and we can grow, or we can turn our backs on it and it won't grow," he said. "The leaders here today can make a difference of how this moves forward."

Curiosity in the AOAA swelled the monthly chamber luncheon attendance to some 40 people who packed into the meeting room at the welcome center, which was finished last fall. Other than two authority meetings earlier this year, the chamber lunch was the first public event in the building.

Backes expects it will be a busy place come this spring as the park, spanning forest and mine land in five townships, sells passes to the public for the first time.

"We are going to manage the ride area, the 6,500 acres of land, the trail system," he said. "We're looking for private development to take care of the rest."

'Second to none'

Backes said he spoke to an employee of Yamaha who conducted a dealer demonstration at the park in 2012 and has gone off-roading in all 50 states. He said what the AOAA has in terms of riding opportunity is "second to none." That's what AOAA Authority member Barry Yorwarth saw years ago when he began to push the idea of creating the park, Backes said. Yorwarth was also in attendance, as was Pat Mack, a third authority member and Northumberland County's planning director.

A study done as part of the master plan showed that if the park attracts 41,500 visitors per year, it would produce more than $5 million in local economic impact and spawn 184 new jobs in the community.

"Working together, that's our potential," Backes said.

He said the region already has one "great example of tourism" in Knoebels Amusement Resort. "This is another one," he said.

While the park will eventually be open to biking, hiking, equestrian trails and other activities, off-highway vehicle (OHV) use - full-size vehicles, ATVs, motorcycles - is the concentration for now.

Two new businesses

Backes said a large campground is being constructed near AOAA land in West Cameron Township and a new storage rental facility has been constructed along Route 125 just north of the park entrance. Both are specifically because of the park.

"That's two businesses that have come about before we even get open. The question is," Backes said, repeating the words on his accompanying Powerpoint, "What else?"

He noted the AOAA, operating as a municipal authority on land it's leasing from Northumberland County, wants to pay its bills, but isn't interested in profiting.

"We want private development" for that, he said.

He acknowledged the business infrastructure for which the area is least prepared is in hotel accommodations.

DCNR behind it

Backes' presented details about funding the park has received, including more than $3 million from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

"They're very impressed with what we've done so far and they continue to support us," he said about the agency. "They're not going to walk away from it now."

Beyond recreation, development of the AOAA is serving as the impetus for cleanup of past mining, with hundreds of thousands of dollars targeted at land reclamation and acid-mine drainage cleanup. The welcome center and parking lots, Backes noted, sit on an area that 20 years ago was a strip mine.

Meanwhile, the county continues to lease some of the AOAA acreage for mining, so it's not losing out on income, he noted.

Stopping the trash

Backes acknowledged that securing 6,500 acres is difficult, but that with security cameras, gates and placement of rocks and trees, the plan is to control access.

That should stop the abuse that has plagued the area for decades, including dumping "trash on top of trash on top of trash," he said. "We're going to change that."

There has been vandalism to AOAA gates, he said, adding, "We're not going to take that lightly."

Cleanups are scheduled March 29 and April 12 in preparing for the opening.

The focus now is securing funding for and hiring a park manager. The AOAA is also working on a process for vendors and sponsors that will help direct business to local companies but keep a "level playing field," Backes said.

'Sky's the limit'

He noted there are endless possibilities of how the park can impact the community, and the goal is to get riders into local towns to eat and stay and shop. He's optimistic it can help the economy.

"We don't know where it will go, but it'll go if people get behind it," Backes said. "The sky's the limit on what we can do." The luncheon was sponsored by the AOAA and KPI Technology, Elysburg, and was catered by One Smart Cookie, Coal Township.