By Eric Scicchitano

BURNSIDE - The Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) is an off-road recreation area, sure, but today it becomes something else - a proving ground.

Five years of planning, debate and construction culminated in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting Friday. Today, the gates to the park open to the public for the first time, and the age-old question will finally be answered: If you build it, will they come?

State Sen. John Gordner (R-27) believes so. He said the AOAA makes Coal Township a recreation destination. One of 12 guests to address a 75-person crowd inside the three-bay garage at the AOAA welcome center, Gordner said the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett believes so, too.

Initial project funding came from his predecessor, Ed Rendell, but it continued under Corbett.

"This administration has just piled on and said, 'This is the most exciting project in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania that we see,'" Gordner said.

Yamaha Motor Corp. has its event truck on site for the weekend. A Kawasaki representative flew from California for the AOAA's public opening. State Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) said the presence of the two international companies is indicative of the belief that the AOAA can be successful.

Families from afar

Van May, a product trainer for Yamaha, has made his third trip to the AOAA, and his company donated $20,000 to the effort. He'll help show off the 21 ATVs and side-by-sides on display, a handful available to ride by anyone over 21 years of age and with a valid driver's license.

Off-roading has become a family pastime, and off-road parks become vacation destinations. They have the support of vehicle manufacturers. After all, their customers need someplace to ride.

The hilly, rocky terrain of the 6,500-acre park that cuts across five townships will pull off-road enthusiasts from out of the area, and from out of the state, May said. He believes people from Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York will come to Coal Township to ride, and from even farther. Families will drive here from eight to 10 hours away for a weekend, he said. They'll buy gas, food and lodging, and pay for gear and repairs.

"It's a family oriented sport and they'll spend money," May said.

Kevin DeCew, Yamaha regional business manager, said the four-man Yamaha crew expects to spend about $1,000 between Coal Township and Selinsgrove, where they're staying at a hotel. If a hotel were built close to the park - he pointed to land near The Plaza at Coal Township and Walmart Supercenter - DeCew said he'd book it once a year for a five-day sales meeting of 100 Yamaha representatives.

'Enormous' foresight

The state and federal governments are betting on its success, bankrolling a majority of the $3.7 million allocated to the AOAA to date.

Meanwhile, locals interested in its development are split.

Supporters largely believe in its potential economic benefits. If it thrives, it could give that sorely needed boost to local commerce no other recent project has been able to deliver.

Detractors are miffed by the price tag put on access to land locals long enjoyed at no cost. If it fails, the fear is that taxpayers will increasingly be on the hook for potential debt as the project goes bust.

Friday's ceremony, of course, had a congratulatory air of accomplishment. It took a lot of effort to bring it to fruition and there's more to be done. The park is largely restricted to motorized use. Grants are being pursued to develop non-motorized opportunities, too, like mountain biking and equine trails.

Northumberland County government representatives, including past and present commissioners, were noted for their commitment to the project. Kathy Jeremiah, the county's grants manager, was particularly lauded for her efforts.

"It's an enormous amount of foresight. You've done a great job," Ellen Ferretti, secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said of all state and municipal government officials. Ferretti called it a creative idea of adaptive reuse of abandoned mine land.

Demand for off-road access is high, she said. The state currently has 250 miles of ATV trails in seven state forest districts and nearly 3,000 miles of joint-use roads.

Spread the word

Jon Rall, public relations for Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA, said the demand to ride at the AOAA will grow with time. He once brought 20 members of various media to the park to get a look. They wrote about their experiences in print and online, spreading the word.

"People get to talking. All it takes is a few to say, 'Hey, I want to go and see what the buzz is about,'" Rall said.

That's the type of advertising AOAA officers are banking on. As it stands, Pat Mack, authority member, said there's no paid advertising in place.

Like his competitors at Yamaha, Rall believes the AOAA will have a positive impact on the local economy. He said about 15 small businesses popped up around the Hatfield and McCoy ATV park in West Virginia within three months of the opening of its trailhead.

In the Shamokin and Coal Township area, some restaurants have said business had risen when private group events were held at the AOAA in the past three years leading up to today's public debut. A campground in West Cameron Township and storage shed near the park are under development as a result of AOAA.

The business of today, though, will be riding. AOAA Authority Chairman Jim Backes, master of ceremonies on Friday, said the riding community likes mud. After Friday morning's hard rain - which cleared just in time for the opening ceremonies - Backes said the park is ready.

"Our puddles are full," he said.