BURNSIDE - While the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) is still in its infant stages, the deputy secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' (DCNR) Bureau of Recreation and Conservation dedicated full state support through its "childhood and adolescence."

This was the promise Friday afternoon from Cindy Dunn at a ground-breaking ceremony at the AOAA trailhead, marking the start of work on the first permanent structure on the property. Northumberland County officials hope the welcome center and the park will foster tourism, recreation and economic development in the area.

Dunn, state Sen. John Gordner (R-27) and state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) all guaranteed they would continue to support the park.

"DCNR is in this for the long run. This is supported top to bottom by DCNR," Dunn said.

When local government, businesses, residents and state legislators all come to DCNR with the same message, it makes supporting the project an easy decision, Dunn said.

She called the AOAA a "triple win" for recreation, conservation and the local economy.

"The sky is the limit," Dunn said.

Optimism shared

The ceremony took place at the future site of the welcome center, which will be built on east side of Route 125 a few miles south of Shamokin. The proposed park is located on 6,500 acres of forest and abandoned coal lands in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships. Recreation activities will include off-highway vehicles, hiking, biking and horseback riding trails. Hunting will be allowed in certain areas of the park during certain times of the year. It's possible hunting will be allowed year-round on the 342-acre "Alaska site" portion of the park, county officials have said previously.

Gordner and Masser shared Dunn's optimistic attitude.

"Visions don't happen a lot of times. Thinking outside the box doesn't happen a lot of times. Too many times when you think of economic development, we think of something rigid. You can't always think that way," Gordner said.

The park planners are overcoming the challenges of making this park a reality, he said.

"I see opportunities left and right for bringing people into this area," he said.

Masser agreed, saying, "What a great influx this will be for this region. Take a look around what this can do for this region. The possibilities are endless."

The state officials were joined by nearly 30 other dignitaries, including Northumberland County commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy; Coal Township Commissioner Gene Welsh; Wes Fahringer, north central regional adviser for DCNR's Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, and staff from the township, county planning department and conservation district.

Clausi thanked the state and local officials, including former county commissioners Kurt Masser and Frank Sawicki, who were both at the ceremony. He also thanked Commissioner Stephen Bridy for supporting the project in all aspects throughout the planning process in order to provide it with the necessary votes moving forward.

Seeing the vision

Bridy said he and the commissioners have the easy job because all they do is vote and sign their names on documents.

"The people with the boots on the ground are the guys who are making it happen," he said.

They moved the dirt, made the phone calls and scheduled the events, he said.

Masser especially praised authority member Barry Yorwarth for being the "spark" behind the project.

"Barry made me see the vision. Barry made me see what a gem we have here and what an opportunity we have here," he said.

Construction will begin soon and finish in mid to late September.

Welcome center

The welcome center will include an administrative building with an office, conference room and three maintenance garages. There will be 75 parking places on a paved lot and 180 spaces on a gravel lot, with additional overflow parking. The area will also include an ATV safety course, benches, lights and signs.

Contracts totaling $1,637,281 were awarded by the authority last month to Paul Risk Associates Inc., of Quarryville, at $1,429,000 for general construction; J.B. Electric Corp., of Minersville, at $92,390 for electrical; Bognet Inc., of Hazleton, at $58,205 for plumbing, and Shannon A. Smith Inc, of Myerstown, at $57,685 for mechanical/HVAC.

Funding is coming mostly from two grants totaling $1.9 million that were awarded by DCNR in 2010 and 2011.

The AOAA has been open for more than 50 events planned by private clubs and organizations, but AOAA authority Chairman Jim Backes said the goal is to have it open for public ride on the weekends "as fast as possible" later this year.

The master plan calls for an on-site manager, but that person will not be hired this year, Backes said.

Rates are expected to increase as the park becomes a larger entity, he said.

Hummer Club

During the remarks by various individuals, more than 30 members of The Hummer Club Inc. arrived in 10 large vehicles to watch the ceremony and show their support.

"This is going to be the premier off-road site in the country, we believe," said Dave Yeck, CFO of the not-for-profit club.

He said the diversity of the land and the driving skills needed for the challenging obstacles are what has kept the 276 members coming back twice a year for the last five years.

First discussed in 2009

It's been more than four years since the public mention of an off-highway vehicle park was first reported. Masser first broached the subject when he was county commissioner during a March 2009 discussion about mine reclamation with DCNR's then-acting chief, John Hangar.

While there was celebration Friday, some are still opposed to county government being involved in such a project, saying the government entity doesn't belong in the off-road business and that taxpayer resources and dollars are at risk. Others are upset over losing free use of the land for off-roading, which they've had for decades, and unrestricted use for hunting.

For their part, county officials have argued that having the park will bring control and safety to off-road riding, and an end to partying and dumping, that takes place now on the public property. While public grant money has been used, the largest chunk of that coming from fees paid to the state by off-road riders; taxpayer money won't be used for the project, officials have said.