The principals leading the charge to establish Eastern Kentucky’s answer to the Hatfield McCoy ATV Trails in West Virginia told a Kentucky legislative committee last week that work on the trail system is progressing.
Rep. Chris Fugate, of Perry County, led the presentation by the First Frontier Appalachian Trails to the state Interim Joint Committee on Tourism, Small Business and Information Technology on Nov. 18, during which several legislators expressed their pleasure with the ongoing project and their hopes to continue work on it.
The First Frontier trails system, which Fugate said is initially being modeled on the Hatfield McCoy ATV Trails system, is seeking to unify 18 counties in the region toward the establishment of a trails system in Eastern Kentucky.
Jerry Stacy, chairman of the trail system’s board, thanked the legislature for their work on the trail system, adding that it could not have been done without the legislature’s support.
However, he also said that the region is coming together in a way he’s never seen to establish the trails.
“The thing that is so encouraging to me is we’ve got 18 counties all on the same page, pulling in the same direction, to accomplish something that’s going to help the entire region and not just one county,” he said, adding he doesn’t know that he’s ever seen this kind of effort on a project in his lifetime. “This has the chance to be a game-changer for us in Eastern Kentucky.”
Fugate updated the legislative committee on West Virginia’s trail system’s success and reminded the committee of the need for the project.
“It’s very important for East Kentucky,” Fugate said. “It’s more than tourism. It’s an economic development tool that allows local people and businesses to really prosper because of the people that come into East Kentucky to spend money, to spend time.”
In West Virginia, Fugate said, this year alone, there have been riders from all 50 states and 13 foreign countries.
“They’ve really been reinvented,” he said, adding that local people have been able to build cabins and ATV infrastructure and benefit from it.
In fiscal year 2020, West Virginia sold $3.9 million in trail permits with a total economic impact of $38 million in the eight counties in the trail system.
“If you took $38 million and dropped it in East Kentucky, in any 10 counties, or any 18 counties, that’d be a big boost to the economy,” he said.
Over 76 percent, he said, of those who rode the Hatfield McCoy Trails said they would be returning.
A lot of trail mapping has been done, Fugate said.
“The trails that are mapped are trails that people are riding every day,” he said. “Every land owner has to be contacted ... to get land agreements.”
Land owners, Fugate said, have immunity under legislation passed in 2017 from any issue that would stem from a wreck or other problem on their property.
The landowners are not paid for their property, but Fugate said the offer of immunity, plus the opportunity to make money on their property, is enough.
Some of the mapping, he said, allows not only for people to travel trails between counties, but also to be directed into towns and communities to take advantage of local businesses, such as restaurants and gas stations.
“Every county is looking to start RV parks and different things, but there are some private individuals in some of the counties that already have cabins,” he said. “Knott County has cabins and they’re trying to work out a deal with someone to start renting side-by-sides.”
Fugate said events already held in the region have drawn big crowds such as in Johnson County, where 132 ATVs participated in an recent event which included a parade of ATVs through the community of Van Lear.
Fugate said the trail system is asking for $1.5 million from the legislature for its two-year budget.
Many of the legislators on the committee asked questions, but also expressed their support for the project.
Sen. David Yates of Jefferson County said the project is something that could accomplish a much-needed goal.
“We have got to do things to draw in outside money,” he said. “We’ve got to double down on tourism.”
Yates said he envisions that the trails would not only benefit the trail areas, but also draw people in to participate in other activities in the state.
Rep. Shane Baker, of Laurel and Pulaski County, said the potential impact of the trails would be massive, particularly in Eastern Kentucky.
“When I looked at that, $38 million, if you look at $15 an hour, that gives you a little over 1,200 jobs,” Baker said. “If we could do something to create 1,200 jobs in Eastern Kentucky, or my community or yours, I think that would be a wonderful thing. It just helps you to understand the impact it is making and the future growth potential of this.”