Top Trails: What does future hold?
by Chris Norwood
TALLADEGA — The TOP Trails Park, a joint venture involving the cities of Lincoln and Talladega to develop the property formerly known as the Brecon Annex, began with tremendous ambition. The project is now scaled back and behind schedule, but still ambitious and, according to Chuck Roberts of Roberts and Associates, the professional services group charged with developing the park, possibly closer to profitability than many might think.

“Right now, we’re applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine the feasibility and impact of the zip rider, and the contracts for some of the camp grounds are ready to go. The board has already signed off on them, I just need to get signatures on the contracts,” he said.

As for the grant application, Roberts said the board will first have to adopt some federally required but non-controversial policy guidelines, such as a drug-free workplace rule.

But before going into the present and future of the park, Roberts wanted to clear up some common misconceptions about the way things have gone to date. For instance, it is commonly assumed that the board makes money from timber sales off the property, and that this money is used to provide matching funds for various state and federal grants. This is, Roberts said, not the case.

“The timber money is either being spent on things that are being reimbursed through grant funding or are not covered by the grants.” Although he could not say for certain, “off the top of my head I would say that would be for recurring expenses like power, water and maybe advertising.” Gate fees also go to cover non-reimbursables.

To date, no cash has been used for grant matches, Roberts said. Most of the local funds have come from in-kind services from local volunteers, especially those with the Cheaha Trail Riders.

In the past, money from a Land and Water Conservation Fund grant has also been used to provide local matching funds, but that was disallowed during the most recent round of grant funding, which has lead to something of an impasse, at least for the time being.

The board has a pending reimbursement request for about $324,000. But that money is being held up while the Alabama Department of Economic and Commercial Affairs awaits approval from the U.S. Highway Administration on a procedure called tapered matching.

“Normally, you have to prove that you have the matching funds before your request is processed,” Roberts said. “With a tapered match, you keep up with how much has been paid and how much is owed as you go along, and send it in later. This would get us our money faster, but ADECA needs an answer first.”

This situation demonstrates one of the factors in the development of the park being behind schedule. “Absolutely everything we do needs government approval, either through ADECA or through the Army Corps of Engineers. I’d say there’s no question that we’re behind schedule, but I would prefer not to comment any further on why.”

The other option would be to ask for matching funds to be deducted from the overall grant, something Roberts said he prides himself on never having done.

“Once you do that, that money is gone forever, and you can never get it back. The board has not had to spend one dollar so far that it won’t be able to get back.”

The original master plan for the park included an area set aside for various shooting sports. This eventually evolved into the Alabama Shooting Complex, a wide-ranging plan for a portion of the park dedicated to all things related to firearms and other projectiles. Competition with private ranges that are moving faster toward fruition have caused the ASC to be tabled for the time being, however.

“The shooting ranges were part of the master plan, but the ASC itself was not,” Roberts said. “And that’s what’s tabled. The plan just had a provision for shooting sports, but a specific footprint for the ASC didn’t exist. So the overall focus hasn’t really changed since Day 1. The emphasis is on off-highway vehicles, equestrian trails, camping, hiking, biking, shooting and the zip rider.”

Roberts emphasized that the plans currently under consideration were for a “zip rider,” not a “zip line or canopy tour.”

“The zip rider is unique, and designed for speed and safety. There are no others like it. There are only eight other zip riders in the United States, and all of them paid off within 36 months of opening. All of them helped revitalize and rejuvenate the existing attractions around them. And we have a higher population pool to draw from than any of the others.”

The nearest current zip rider is in Branson, Mo.

The park is probably close to being profitable now, Roberts said, although he could not say for certain. “The gate fees were never going to be enough to cover payroll, even if you include concessions, camping and daily use fees in that. If not for the grant money and timber sales, the park would not be self-sufficient, which, of course, is the goal. We want to be self-sufficient as soon as possible. Me and my team, we feel that if the zip rider had been accepted initially, the park would be self-sufficient now. As it is, I would not be comfortable speculating about a date for a positive income projection.”

In the meantime, development of the rest of the park continues.

“Waits Construction has a 120 day contract on the campgrounds, and we are trying to put together a volunteer committee for the equestrian portion that would have representatives of various disciplines in the equestrian world.”

The plan would eventually be for the development of an equestrian and livestock arena that could be used by 4H programs at various schools as well as for recreational purposes.

All of this was originally slated for completion in 2013, which is more than half over.

“That’s what I mean when I say everything is behind,” Roberts said. “We have trails in the equestrian area already, but they need to be modified. Right now, they’re mostly being used by (all-terrain vehicles).”

© 2013