Park seen as 'economic engine'
The following questions regarding Northumberland County's planned Anthracite Outdoor Recreation Area, formerly known as the OHV (off-highway vehicle) park, were answered by county Planning Director Patrick Mack, in consultation with other county officials and project planners. The questions were posed by The News-Item in an effort to clarify many issues related to the project, particularly in advance of Tuesday's public meeting on the subject.
Q. First, there seems to be confusion as to whether this is a "proposal" or a project that is definitely going to happen. What, specifically, is the status, and where does the Oct. 19 meeting fit into the process?
A. We are currently in the planning process of this project. It just means that when the master plan is complete, it will allow the county to apply for grants to do the construction. In completing the grant, we can attach the master site plan stating the concept has been laid out, the ideas are valid, we have performed all the necessary due diligence, and this is a project that can be sustainable. As indicated in the proposal with the consultant, Pashek Associates, there will be a series of three public meetings - an initial, mid-project and presentation of the final plan. The Oct. 19 public meeting will be the mid-project point, where the draft concept plan will be presented for public input.
Q. If not addressed above, where, how and with whom did this idea originate?
A. To the best of my knowledge, the idea of a formalized motorized/non-motorized recreation project in this area originated with Barry Yorwarth and Jeff Nye some 13 plus years ago. Barry visited many of these facilities across the nation to enjoy motorized recreation, his hobby. During these visits, he came to realize that some of the best recreation he experienced was right in his backyard. From
that point, he did research on the property and came to realize the county held most of the best reserves. Prior to this board of commissioners, he was never granted an opportunity to present the idea. It was only in the tenure of this board of commissioners that he was afforded the opportunity to present the project and the economic impact of others like it. This board embraced this project as an economic engine and immediately helped guide it forward to the point it is today.
Q. Did the county do a feasibility study to determine the demand, financial needs, etc., for such a park, or is that yet to come? If not, what is the basis for pursuing such a large project?
A. Feasibility study/financial analysis are currently being conducted. That's a key component of the master site plan. The study will determine the demand for the OHV facility, assess estimated use and project operation income and expenses and development costs. The study will also address major areas of businesses operations. This property is unique. There are many facilities that accommodate motorized and non-motorized activities. The difference between this property and others is they are not contiguous and they are very remote, several hours from major interstates. As we all know, the lower anthracite region is less than five hours from a very high percentage of the majority of the nationwide population. Additionally, we are in close proximity to major north-south and east-west interstate roads.
Q. What financial obligations does the county have toward the park, including A. Any matches to government grants or low-interest loans; B. Operational expenses (including insurance, employees, maintenance, etc.), C. Other.
A. A: This spring, the planning department applied for a construction grant to DCNR. In that application, we proposed a $5,347,940 project, of which we requested DCNR fund $3,538,090, the remaining amount consisted of $1,719,849 non-cash match for various in-kind services. Those services include time and equipment for reclamation services from the Bureau of Anthracite Mine Reclamation (BAMR), various volunteer groups and enthusiast clubs, time and resources of planning department staff. Additionally, we proposed a cash-match portion of $90,000 to leverage the approximate $3.5 million if the project were to be funded. This project would not, and will not be possible, without the help of DCNR and other state agencies. The commissioners have stated that they are not able to spend millions of dollars to develop this project. They cannot afford it, and need help to make it a reality.
B. We do not have an answer at this time. When the economic impact analysis is complete, we will receive a business plan. That business plan will contain recommendations and projections on estimated revenues and expenses to operate this facility. The ultimate goal is to have this facility sustainable, meaning within a few years the revenues will exceed the expenses to the point where grants are not needed for operations. Once this occurs, it is our expectation that the increased tourism and influx of people will have created ancillary businesses. This, in turn, will provide increases in tax revenue from the heightened business activity and employment.
Q. At the first public meeting, John O. Buerkle Jr., of Pashek Associates, said the park would provide secondary benefits, including a boost to the local economy through hotels, garages and restaurants. What is the county's best-case scenario of economic impact? For example, how many hotels/lodging facilities, ATV repair shops, restaurants or other businesses would have to start to consider this a successful venture? Or, what dollar figure of economic impact would be considered necessary for "success?"
A. As the plan unfolds in the coming weeks, an economic impact analysis will be developed to show the economic opportunities that could follow as development of the OHV area begins. Multiple methods of analysis are being used to estimate the potential economic impact in Northumberland County. The economic impact analysis will project the anticipated dollar impact in the county, estimated number of jobs to be created and the types of businesses that will likely be expanded or added.
Preliminary information will be provided at the Oct. 19 public meeting. Come January when the plan is complete, I would be happy to sit down with anyone interested to discuss the economic impact. Until that point, each person can only generate their own opinion. I recommend people research facilities like Hatfield McCoy in West Virginia, Rock Run Recreation in Patton and Black Mountain Off-Road Adventure in Harlan County, Ky.
Q. Related to the above, how many riders per weekend are expected, or how many are needed to make this profitable and worthwhile?
A. See answer above.
Q. Are the specific borders of the park established? Some people have expressed concern that it will "go through people's land?" Does the county have any plans to do that or enact eminent domain?
A. At this time, borders of the facility are established on maps only. We have no intention of traveling through anyone's land without permission. We have discussed our interest with some adjacent property owners in obtaining easements to pass through their property to access county property. At this time, the only property to be utilized is county land. Our hope in the long term is to establish relationships with certain property owners to utilize their property in conjunction with the facility, but that remains entirely their decision. The county has no intentions to enact eminent domain on anyone's home. One property, which was the site of the old WISL tower, is involved with eminent domain proceedings. This property contains no homes, no timber and has no means of access. We attempted negotiations for acquisition with the property owners, and their demands far exceeded a fair market value. This is not an action we wanted to take, but we were left with no other option as it is in the center of the property and about to go for auction. All other properties are on the borders and contain homes. We have no interest in taking anyone's home or relocating them by eminent domain.
Q. The grant application says, "It is the intent of the commissioners that the park be self-sustaining, but also have reduced fees for the resident of Northumberland County." Have you established specifics related to this? Any guess as to what the fees would be and the potential discount?
A. A business plan is being developed as part of the planning process. A section of the business plan will project all income and expenses for the facility. As well, it will provide anticipated costs for daily admissions, season passes, special event fees and other opportunities for revenues. It is our intention to offer a reduced rate to Northumberland County residents. However, it is equally important that we create a business plan that will allow the facility to be self-sustaining. We are working extremely hard to have a local discount, and I am confident we will find a way to give the local residents that discount. Once the business plan is established, we'll be happy to discuss the fee structure.
Q. The general consensus among many is that "we used this land for free, now we have to pay." What's the county's response?
A. Our legal counsel will explain at the public meeting on Oct. 19 how this land is held. They are correct that currently they use it for free. That said, they are trespassing. The legal explanation will follow. We encourage all interested users who want to see this property remain as a recreation area to support this project. Without this project, the property could be closed to public access and the county could cite those who trespass onto the property. Further, the county could sell the land to a private developer who could do as they wish with the property. The commissioners recognize the land has value in its current state. The proposal for this facility is a means to ensure the property will remain as a place of recreation for years to come, with the potential to mine in the future. As a public recreation area, we have a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of visitors to the facility. There are costs associated with doing so. Those costs will be covered by the fee that will be charged to access the facility.
Q. Habitat for Wildlife, those with properties bordering the county land in question and others have been critical of the county for not seeking their input. What does the county plan to do going forward to include the interests of those from the conservation, hiking and hunting communities? Also, who is on the steering committee as of now and what are their affiliations? (See separate story for the steering committee members.)
A. Honestly, we've been frustrated with the criticism of the county's perceived lack of interest in conservation concerns. If the commissioners chose to turn their backs on this project and divest of the property, there would be nothing to ensure positive re-use of the property, or to stimulate the county's economy, not to mention the potential of further environmental degradation if a landfill or other toxic use of the property were to occur. We have begun the process of conducting our due diligence with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Like the master plan, this process will be ongoing as specific projects are undertaken on the property. We have met with the Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance and the game commission, and a board member of the Northumberland County Conservation District is an active member of the steering committee. Several committee members wear multiple hats, and not only represent OHV interests, but also non-motorized and hunting interests, as they are passionate about those aspects as well. We also have a representative of the equine community on our steering committee; she has been vocal about the loss of riding opportunities on the State Game Lands due to changes in game commission policies. Therefore, it is her hope this facility can provide trails to meet the equestrian community's needs.
Anticipating the county will move forward and implement the anticipated recommendations of the planning process, any development plan must obtain applicable permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Our goal is not only to meet the minimum requirements, but to go above and beyond, as we want to be showcased as a best practices example of how to improve a property through a project of this nature.
Our goal with this project is to enhance the property through conservation and environmental efforts so it is in better condition than it is today. We plan to accomplish this by cleaning up illegal dumps; enforcing no dumping ordinances; rectifying existing mining hazards such as open shafts, high walls, mining scars and acid-mine drainage issues; defining and controlling where people ride on the property to eliminate and prevent negative impacts to sensitive habitats, and creating and enhancing habitat. We will accomplish this by working with state agencies, conservation and environmental groups and other organizations who are willing to partner with us.
Q. How can an off-road vehicle park and things such as hiking and, particularly, hunting, safely and, in all practicality, co-exist?
A. These activities co-exist in state and federal forests throughout the country. The location of activities and facilities and management and operation policies that will be established will allow these activities to occur in a safe manner on the property. We will be discussing how hunting is proposed to be addressed at the public meeting on Oct. 19.