Area residents are praising the Tahlequah City Council's decision Monday night, Feb. 3, to approve a lease agreement centered on a much-anticipated bicycle trail.
Ward 2 Councilor Dower Combs said work to get the trail project started has suffered several setbacks. Some were related to property acquisition, and others to financial and legal issues. Combs said he saw an opportunity to secure land to move the project forward.
“I, the city administration, and Cherokee County Commissioners recognize the importance of economic development to increase tax revenue. We have partnered together with the county to create a mountain bike and hiking park on 200 acres that will be open to the public,” Combs said. “This will add to our tourism another economic driver for our city and county and will bring a new and much-needed amenity.”
Last year, Tahlequah city councilors accepted a lease bid from Tahlequah Trails Oklahoma Earthbike Fellowship to spearhead plans for a trail system on 65 acres of surplus land owned by the city, adjacent to Diedrick Lane. The council also voted to purchase an additional 40 acres west of the proposed bike trail acreage, which City Planning and Development Director Clint Johnson said would be used to access the trail.
However, during the Nov. 4 City Council meeting, the board unanimously agreed to settle three lawsuits filed against the city regarding bike trails and the purchase of property.
At the time, Combs said his goal has always been to "do the right thing" for Tahlequah, economic development, and tourism. After councilors approved the lease agreement Monday night, Combs said everyone involved in the partnership recognized the importance of economic development and growth.
“[Since] I was elected as a city councilor, it has been my goal to add quality-of-life amenities and attract new economic development to Tahlequah. Many opposed this ideology," Combs said. "This park will fulfill a promise that I made to residents during my campaign. National and regional studies have proved that trails bring in millions of dollars locally and billions of dollars nationally. Tourism in Tahlequah will be even stronger.”
Mayor Sue Catron praised Combs on his commitment to the city – especially with something he had deemed as one of the “most exciting projects just on the horizon.” Catron described the area as beautiful and said the trails could ultimately rival those in Northwest Arkansas.
“This has the potential to be another great recreational draw for tourism, as well as providing Tahlequah residents with opportunities for healthy lifestyles. The agreement is an example of the power of partnerships to make positive change possible,” she said.
Combs said the county 200-acreage is located between South 550 Road and South 540 Road, and is landlocked – meaning that there are no access roads for vehicles. According to the County Assessor's Office, other individuals own nearby property, including interim City Administrator Alan Chapman, who has a parcel north of the county acreage. City Attorney Grant Lloyd and his wife, Chapman's daughter, also live on 540 Road.
The land for the trails has lain fallow for decades, officials said.
“The property is just outside of city limits, less than a mile as the crow flies. The landlocked property has been unused for over 60 years and will become a useful productive asset to our area,” Combs said. “We are currently having discussions to incorporate our growing network of trails with this new park.”
When asked if he thought area residents would be happy with the city-funded bike trail being located near Welling, Combs said the partnership agreed upon with the County Commissioners only costs $5 per year for 99 years.
“Not only will this be a tourist attraction for the city and county, but it will provide health benefits and an enhanced quality-of-life offering for our residents,” he said.
The next step is partnerships with local trail management groups and organizations that work off of grants. Combs said they will also partner with volunteers to manage these types of trails.