By CARL E. FEATHER - firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashtabula County is missing out on significant tourism opportunities because the Metroparks Board has declared the Pymatuning Valley Greenway Trail off limits to motorized recreational vehicles, said an official of a state trade group for the sport.
Matthew T. Mesarchik, government relations director for the Ohio Motorized Trails Association, said the Metroparks Board has turned a deaf ear to numerous requests from that group and regional club members who want access to the abandoned rail line for ATVs and off highway motorcycles (OHMs).
“I went to their meeting (in March) and I was told flat out ‘no,’” said William Schlegel, president of ATV Traction, Inc., a county riding club with about 25 members. Schlegel said that Mesarchik and groups from Pennsylvania also have approached the Metroparks Board during the past two years.
“The answer has always been a flat ‘no,’” Schlegel said.
A roughly 20-mile section of the former rail line between Dorset and the state line is owned by the Metroparks Board, which has not had the money to develop it into a recreational trail, as was originally planned. As a result, the Pymatuning Valley Greenway Trail is overgrown with brush and unusable in most sections.
Schlegel calls the property a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to develop a riding trail in a section of the state where no public trails exist.
Mesarchik said the abandoned rail line has significant tourism potential because it connects destinations between Dorset and Williamsfield. Communities all along the trail would benefit from gasoline and food sales, as well as lodging and retail opportunities.
The former New York Central division once stretched from Jefferson to Jamestown, Pa. Proponent say that opening the entire stretch, some of which is privately owned, would be a great boost to tourism on both sides of the state line. Additionally, Mesarchik wants the Metroparks Board to purchase tracts of land adjoining the trail and develop riding trails there, as well.
Based upon registration data, there are 3,412 titled ATVs and OHMs in Ashtabula County, more than 10,000 in Geauga County, 11,000 in Lake County and 41,000 in Trumbull County. Statewide, there are 770,000 titled ATVs and OHMs, creating a huge opportunity for tourism, Mesarchik said.
“If you want to talk about true economic impact, why are we not talking about providing trail(s) for the 70,000 or so ATV and OHM riders in those four counties who are sorely under served with no public trail in Northeast Ohio?” Mesarchik said.
The board received $199,900 in Clean Ohio Fund money to purchase the property a decade ago. Terry Berkey, a Metroparks board member, said the money came with a restriction — the trail would have to be used for non-motorized vehicles, with the exception of snowmobiles. If the provision is broken, the board faces a 200 percent penalty of the original grant amount, plus 6 percent interest per year.
Mesarchik accuses the board members of using that provision to protect personal bias against motorized vehicles on Metroparks properties. He said the contract provides for a petition process by which the board could ask the director of Ohio Public Works Commission (OPWC) to waive the exemption. The administrator of the OPWC did not return the Star Beacon’s inquiry on Thursday.
Should the board seek an amendment, Mesarchik feels that the economic benefits would build a strong case for amendment. And even if the money had to be paid back, by his calculations it would be $777,758, not the $1 to $2 million figure the park board has quoted.
“Wow, that’s a lot of money, but weighed against the potential economic benefit, maybe it’s worth it,” Mesarchik wrote in an e-mail.
The park board, whose funding is less than $20,000 this year, does not have that kind of money, however. Nor is money available for policing a trail. Mesarchik and Schlegel said that two recreational vehicle grant programs are available through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Further, they say that additional tax revenue from the spending by trail users would give the county resources to hire a deputy assigned to the trail. Schlegel suggests the county look at investing in buying out the trail, if necessary, as an enterprise project.
“This is a win-win for Ohio,” Schlegel said.