By Jonathan Pleasant
Having cancelled their January meeting due to inclement weather, the Board of Directors of the Doe Mountain Recreation Authority (DMRA) were faced with an unusually lengthy and in depth meeting last week that lasted several hours even considering a short lunch break. The first major item on the list was a presentation by Ben Farmer of the Farmer-Morgan Planning Firm, revealing the first official draft of the Doe Mountain Master Plan.
Having spent months gathering data, engaging the public, and organizing the plans structure, Farmer had a great deal of material to cover, ultimately revolving around four separate design scenarios predicting the mountains long term future. Ideas ranged from a minimalist approach designed more for environmental protection, to a full blown commercial operation involving the eventual establishment of a mountain top lodge, chair lifts as access points, and a possible main central corridor that will facilitate vehicle traffic.
With the price tag on establishing necessary infrastructure ranging anywhere from nine to more than 25 million dollars, the board was somewhat incredulous about where the funding for such lavish developments would come from. While Farmer admitted that this would be the real challenge in the DMRAs future, he also pointed out that there are many options in the long run, including private partnerships and concessionaires.
An extensive amount of time was spent reviewing financial information including estimated cash flow projections based on a variety of factors. Beginning with scenario number one, which was viewed as likely the most economic option at just over $10,000,000, Farmer highlighted the strong possibility that Doe Mountain could eventually see millions of dollars of annual revenue centering around four major user groups along with nine or 10 other smaller activities.
Focusing primarily on equestrian, OHV, mountain biking and hiking, the scenarios broke down designated areas of the Doe Mountain property more suited for a particular activity than others and included information directly relating to costs versus anticipated revenues generated by each group. The figures reflected total impact not just for the DMRA but also on the local economy and seemed to paint a very optimistic picture.
However, with much of the data anticipating 30 years or more in the future, many board members took a much more realistic approach and posed questions about first steps and start up. Farmer indicated that the plan will provide some basic information on initial goals but also pointed out that the board will need to develop a separate business and operations plan to deal with day to day functions such as the hiring of staff, trail building, and trail maintenance. Farmer also noted that while some of the scenarios, particularly on the higher end, seem impossible now the board needs to slow down and try to look at a broader picture of what Doe Mountain has the potential to eventually become.
Following Farmers presentation there were numerous questions, many of which were ultimately left open ended. With that in mind, Farmer reiterated that this just the first draft of the plan, leaving time for direct input from the board over the next few weeks. At already over 100 pages in length the document will likely take some time for the board to fully review, and undoubtedly there will be much discussion and potential changes before a final version is adopted.
Turning back to more immediately pressing issues, the board also spent much time discussing the future of two major grants. Bob Richards with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) provided updated information concerning the boards ongoing Regional Trails Program (RTP) funding project totaling more than $196,000. Submitted back in May of 2013, the money will primarily be used to rehabilitate one of the mountains major thoroughfare trails running from Highway 167 on the lower end of Neva to the Harbin Hill entrance on the Northwestern side.
Designated as Trail number one, the major concern is the lower access which runs through a narrow channel shared by Morefield Creek. Already the board utilized grant funding from a Yamaha grant to do some preliminary creek stabilization through the Mountain Trail Riders Organization. However, because this work was done outside of the RTP project, the board recently made a request to TDEC to potentially do a re-scoping of where the funds would be needed most.
Richards indicated that this would not be possible and that the DMRA would have to work within the original scope or jeopardize losing the RTP funding altogether. Because the money would also fund the building of a restroom facility at the Doe Mountain Visitors Center on Harbin Hill, the board indicated that they would work with TDEC to stay with the initial plan, even if it meant a possible reduction due to work already completed.
At the same time the board was looking at the RTP funding, Adam Williams with Brushy Fork Environmental Consulting introduced the potential of a second grant for around $40,000 to further help out with the Morefield Creek restoration portion of the Trail number one rehabilitation. As a tributary of Roan Creek, Williams indicated that the project would qualify as a part of their EPA 319 grant to restore the creek and separate it from the trail.
While Williams grant does carry a $13,000 match, some of which can be accounted for in kind labor, Richards actually pointed out that the work being done could help the board cover some of the RTP match which is substantially higher because of the higher overall funding. There was some questions about timing, with Williams money running out in July or August and the work for the RTP being held back until June. However, with the proper steps both Richardson and Williams felt that the two grants could work in concert to provide a much more extensive outcome on the overall trail project.
DMRA attorney Mona Alderson did point out that work being done by Brush Fork would have to be bid out per the boards procurement guidelines but considering the specific nature of the project and its funding, this would likely be more of a formality than anything else. Further benefits of the partnership included the fact that Williams would be able to satisfy some of the environmental concerns of other RTP related agencies with oversight, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife who are particularly concerned with the potential presence of the endangered Indiana Gray Bat. As an extra precaution on this point, Richards advised the board that preventative steps would need to be taken, such as cutting no trees over five inches in diameter.
With such a lengthy discussion filled with specific steps, there was some disagreement among the board members about particular actions, but in general there was strong support to try and seek out the most benefit from both grants and see them through to completion as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The huge issues of grant administration and master planning aside, the board also approved several exciting smaller developments including most prominently an upcoming Bell Helmets grant application supported by two local well organized Mountain Biking groups from the Tri-Cities and North Carolina High County respectively. Hoping to establish a compact but unique flow trail system that incorporates gravity assisted building techniques to increase ride times with very little pedaling, Anthony Duncan with SORBA Tri-Cities presented information to the board detailing their proposed project and requested permission to pursue the $100,000 grant to be used for construction.
The trail would be located near to the Harbin Hill Entrance and would run five or six miles. Having received prior permission, Duncan has already helped flag the proposed route and with major issues identified is ready to proceed with the application process. Bell selects only three such projects from around the nation to receive the substantial funding, but Duncan is hopeful that the partnerships and rare opportunities associated with Doe Mountain will be a great benefit to the effort. Currently mountain biking is not an activity allowed on the mountain because of insurance issues, but ultimately this will allow some time for organizations like SORBA and the Northwest North Carolina MTB Alliance time to get some trail infrastructure in place.
TDEC deputy commissioner Brock Hill made the formal motion to allow Duncan to pursue the grant, pending a review of the site by ETSUs Dr. Levy who has been engaged in botanical work on the mountain to identify environmentally rare or sensitive areas. Addressing the insurance issue, Attorney Mona Alderson indicated that legislation is being considered in Nashville this session which will hopefully bring the board under the states claims commission and will allow many more activities than are currently covered under the DMRAs private insurance.
Alderson also acknowledged that the board would likely have to pay an annual assessment to receive coverage from the state, but the only real problem now is trying to get as early of an effective date as possible. Currently Alderson feels that this may be as late as July 1st although there is a possibility of having it effective with its presumably earlier passing.
While some other minor issues were held until next month, the board still managed to have a very positive and productive meeting despite lasting nearly six hours. With spring just around the corner and visitors to the mountain only increasing, it is a safe bet the DMRA has a very busy future ahead, but hopefully it will continue moving in the right direction.
By Jonathan Pleasant