Top News Stories of 2018, No. 4: Downhill trails project grows at Lake Leatherwood

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

By Samantha Jones

The Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission had a big year, with the new downhill trails at Lake Leatherwood City Park opening to the public after months of construction. The project is funded by the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers on behalf of Tom Walton.

Parks director Justin Huss said March 12 the project happened faster than anyone expected, apologizing to the Eureka Springs City Council for not communicating about the project better.

“The recent project developments have progressed at an unparalleled pace, and we have not been as effective as we believed we were being in regard to communications,” Huss said. “This is the result of the pace of the project, not any intentional withholding of information.”

He was first contacted about the project on Sept. 29, Huss said, and learned how serious the interest was on Oct. 2. The commission approved a cooperative agreement with Walton to build the downhill feature on Nov. 21, also agreeing to complete a heritage inventory at Lake Leatherwood. Huss said the commission is always thinking about the environmental impact on the city’s resources.

“A key component from the beginning was the ecological impact,” Huss said.

The initial plan had its challenges, Huss said, including the need to purchase part of the property on Miner’s Rock Trail. Today, he said, $600,000 worth of property has been purchased for the project, and the commission has paid nothing for that. Once the project is done, Huss said, 35 acres of land will be donated to the city of Eureka Springs.

Alderman Terry McClung moved to endorse the project, and everyone on the council voted in favor of the motion except Kristi Kendrick.

On March 26, the parks commission sent out a press release saying parts of Lake Leatherwood City Park would be shut down while construction continued on the trails. The area was closed because of safety concerns for both the hiking and biking patrons of the park and the construction crew. The area included the new downhill trails that have been built, the new downhill trails that have not been built, the old downhill trail, all of the original Miner’s Rock Trail and the new re-route of Miner’s Rock Trail.

The trails opened to the public on June 14, with a ceremony near Lake Leatherwood City Park. Huss thanked the Walton Family Foundation for supporting the trails, saying the project never would have happened without the foundation.

The foundation proposed the trails last fall, Huss said, and paid for much of the construction. Huss said the foundation would continue to support the project by providing funds for two new positions to help maintain the trails. The commission would seek a trails manager and trails maintenance worker, Huss said. The reason for that, Huss said, is to be sure the trails remain in their current condition.

“We’re already creating two jobs in town through the trails,” Huss said. “We’re excited about that.”

Gary Vernon, the Walton Family Foundation’s program officer, described how important the project is to him. He’s familiar with Lake Leatherwood, Vernon said.

“This is a special project. It is. It’s special to me,” Vernon said. “I’ve been riding Lake Leatherwood for 20 years.”

There are nearly 30 miles of trails at Lake Leatherwood now, Vernon said, plus the trails in town and at the Great Passion Play. Looking toward the future, Vernon said, Eureka Springs business owners should get ready for an influx of visitors.

“Eureka Springs is going to have 50-plus miles of trails, maybe close to 60 miles of trails,” Vernon said. “Stock up if you have a store. Get well-stocked.”

He’s optimistic that the trails will stay in good shape, Vernon said, because of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists. Huss thanked the Carroll County branch of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists. Without that group, Huss said, the trails would look a lot different throughout Eureka Springs.

“Whether you mountain bike or not, if you like trails, they’ve built them,” Huss said. “They maintain them. They are so valuable to everything that happens and continues to happen in this area.”

On Aug. 21, Huss said he had been working on an agreement for the shuttle service, where the commission would work with Jim Nelson’s Shuttle Bug to get the service running. Huss said the commission would pay for all those expenses out of operating costs, including insurance, ticketing, armbands and machines.

“Beyond the operating expenses, we’ll take 10 percent into an escrow account that we would like to grow into $20,000,” Huss said, “which would be a maintenance improvement fund. I think the escrow account is a smart plan. It allows us to never worry on anything that comes up.”

Once the service begins to show profit and the maintenance improvement fund reaches $20,000, Huss said, the commission would split that 10 percent with Nelson to give back to the community.

“That 10 percent would be equally divided between them and us, reinvesting in events and additional community programs,” Huss said.

The commission voted to purchase two trailers and additional equipment for the service.

On Sept. 18, the commission agreed to allocate $81,609.71 for the trail manager’s salary and equipment. Huss said the funds came from the Walton Family Foundation and needed to be split between the salary and equipment. That would mean moving $41,609.71 to a human resources line item, Huss said, and spending the remaining $40,000 on equipment.

The commission continued to move forward with the shuttle service as the year went on, voting on Nov. 8 to work with Shuttlebug to offer a shuttle service Nov. 9, 2018, through Jan. 31, 2019. Shuttlebug would be responsible for paying for insurance, securing bicycles and supervising drivers, Huss said, and the commission will manage the ticket system and provide the trailer for the bikes.

The commission voted to allocate $25,620 for the service, which includes a $2,100 fee each month, $13.50 per hour for a driver and gas expenses.

At the commission's last meeting of the year Dec. 18, Huss said maintenance on the trails is ongoing.

"Our guys were back in town," Huss said. "They finished the north and south hub on the downhill trails. It's looking really neat."

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