The Paintsville/ Johnson County Trail Town Committee met Thursday, Sept. 5 at the Van Lear Historic Society to discuss a new idea for adventure tourism and an opportunity for economic growth in Johnson and surrounding counties.
The proposed plan would transform existing trails and dirt roads around Van Lear and the area locally known as “Greasy” into a more official off-highway vehicle trail system, much like the successful Hatfield-McCoy trails that have been established in southern West Virginia, providing a recreational opportunity for off-road vehicle enthusiasts.
Committee members Lara Pack, Catherine Castle and Jamie Pinson discussed during the meeting how the trail system will be established, operate, gain funding, protect private landowners and more.
Pack, the PJC Trail Town catalyst, addressed the crowd with a presentation on the success of the Hatfield-McCoy trail system. Citing a study on the economic impact that Hatfield-McCoy trails have had from 2006 to 2014, Pack said, “Last year, the eight counties participating in the Hatfield- McCoy trails ... their economic impact was $24.8 million.”
In regard to what that sort of money would mean to this community, she said, “That goes a long way toward putting a dent in the economic deficit left by the end of coal.”
“Everything is here,” she said. “All of the pieces are already here. What we need is the thing that will bring more money in. The thing that will bring more money in is these trails. his is what we call, in tourism, low-hanging fruit. We do not need to go out there and build a trail. It’s already there. We don’t need to establish access points to the trail. They’re already there. We don’t even have to do a whole lot in the way of marketing, because everybody knows it’s already there.”
According to Pack, the committee intends to choose a trail that is likely to connected to Butcher Holler, with the majority of the property already being used owned by Booth Energy.
“That land now is out there for us to use. People have been out there using that land since they started mining it. It’s not anything new,” said Pack.
Should any of the trail cross private property, the committee would like to assure these landowners that they would not be liable for any injuries or deaths that might occur there.
“There is a legislation called KRS 411 ... that legislation says if we establish a trail and we sell permits and it crosses private property, the responsible party in any injuries or whatever happens is the authority, not the individual land owner,” said Pack.
The authority she referred to was the Kentucky Regional Mountain Recreation Authority.
“Two years ago, legislation created that authority to mirror what they had done in West Virginia,” she continued.
“In West Virginia, they set up an authority before they ever started working on the Hatfield-McCoy (trails) or the Spearhead any other trail. It was legislated to set up an authority that was going to look at ‘how do we set up trails and make money like other states that are already doing it like North Carolina and Tennessee and several of the other states that were already doing it.
“If you don’t know,” she continued, “they are extremely financially successful (13 years later). Are we going to look at having to wait 13 years to reap that success? No. Absolutely we are not, and here’s why. They’ve already done it and we don’t have to reinvent the process. The process is in place and that’s what the regional recreational authority is doing now. They’re taking the steps to do the same thing (here) that they’re doing there.”
Pack also cited the success southern West Virginians who have built businesses around the trails have had. She noted how similar ventures could be done here and how locals could generate income from lodging, food, and more.
“If you own a camper, a tree house, a house, a yurt ... any kind of lodging that is outdoorsy, adventurous or cool is gonna be a seller. It’s gonna sell all day long.
“They (the tourists) can ride the trails all day long, but at the end of the day they’re going to need somewhere to eat, somewhere to shop, somewhere to listen to music or drink a beer or whatever it is they do when they’re not out on the trails. There’s a wide range of people looking for a wide range of experiences,” she continued.
Another way in which the trail system would generate income would be by selling permits for access to the trails. Pack assured that the locals who have been enjoying these trails already would not be affected much by this permit system, again citing the way it is implemented elsewhere. There would be a difference in the cost of a residential permit and those sold to non-residents.
“The goal is not to make money off the people who live here. We want the trail system to be supported,” Pack assured the room.
Regarding why the proposed plan had not yet received funding, Pack said, “We haven’t gotten any money because we didn’t have a plan. It’s no magic thing and there’s nobody to blame politically … We have to get together and come up with a plan.”
She also stressed the importance of Johnson and the surrounding counties coming together in support of trail systems that cross county lines.
“Lawrence County can’t apply for grant money and get looked at as seriously as a three or four county initiative. That cooperation is exactly what they’re looking for,” she said. “They want regional branding. They don’t want people thinking they can cowboy it and do it themselves.”
Regarding the proposed trail beginning in Van Lear and crossing into Martin and Floyd counties, Pack said, “The connectivity is what will make us money and make us sustainable. A great plan is a plan that is sustainable. That’s why we’re trying to get all these counties into agreement, and that’s what we’ve done.”
After the meeting, Van Lear native and owner of Blood Moon Security Solutions, David Harrington, offered his full support to the committee.
“As a local businessman from Van Lear, I am behind this project 100 percent,” Harrington said. “It’s going to help the all the local businesses, it’s going to help all private and public entities, and I’m going to do whatever I can to see it happen,” he said.