Johnsburg Town Hall
The Johnsburg Town Board on Tuesday, May 1 adopted a strategy to accomplish a grant-funded project at Ski Bowl Park that will include a new playground featuring a climbing boulder and a multi-use hike-and-bike path designed by local trail-blazing legend Steve Ovitt.
But arriving at a decision regarding the direction of the project proved to be difficult.
Five years ago, the state awarded the town a parks and recreation matching grant that would allow the town to make more than $100,000 worth of improvements to Ski Bowl Park. The state would kick in half and the town would kick in the other half. The town’s portion could be cash, materials, and/or labor, be it paid or volunteer. At the time, the town envisioned, among other things, a skateboard park, a volunteer-built wooden playground apparatus and renovations to the town beach.
A lot has happened in the intervening years, not the least of which was an economic recession that still has many municipalities feeling its impact, including Johnsburg. Without funding to pay for the town’s portion, and with the grant being such that the town had to front the entire cost and then be reimbursed, the town hasn’t been in a position to accomplish much on the project.
The town has until November to either finish the project, get an extension to finish the project in future years, or, absent either of those options, the town could forfeit the grant. In order to grant an extension, the state wants to see “substantial progress” on the project, project coordinator Kelly Nessle said.
Compounding the situation, the plan has gone through an evolution of sorts since it was first conceived. And the state must approve changes to the original proposal. Skateboard parks are no longer in vogue. And the prospect of marshaling a sufficient number of volunteers to build a wooden playground apparatus loomed as a daunting task, Nessle said.
Tuesday, the board wrangled with the question of how to proceed with the project, what to include in the project, or whether the project should proceed at all.
Nessle and Ovitt made an impassioned presentation in an effort to get the project moving forward.
In place of a skateboard park, Ovitt, a former state forest ranger, shared a vision of a 3-kilometer “hardened single track” trail suitable for biking and hiking that would link the North Creek Train Depot, Town Hall and Ski Bowl Park and along the way intersect with several established hiking trails to provide a network linking the hamlet of North Creek with thousands of acres of pristine wilderness including Gore.
Jeff Palka, owner of The Gear Source cycling shop, told the board that such a trail would be the first of its kind in the Northeast and described the trail system as akin to those one might find at big ski resorts out west such as Telluride.
“Cyclers from all over would come here for that,” Palka said. “They could actually start right in town. It would be unique.”
Ovitt said the trail network would be ideal for Nordic skiing in the winter and would provide year-round benefit.
Town Board members seemed enthusiastic about the proposal. Yet there was one major issue to resolve. Councilman Arnold Stevens framed the issue succinctly.
“To me it’s a simple thing,” Stevens said. “We have a project. Do we have the money?”
Nessle told the board that the project was a “steal of a deal,” and explained that for a net final investment of about $38,000 and some sweat equity, the town could have improvements to the park worth three times that amount.
“To me it’s a no-brainer,” Nessle said and urged the board to find a way to pay for the project. About $25,000 has already been identified as available funding, Nessle reminded the board. She urged them to consider taking out a bond anticipation note (BAN) so that the town could front the full cost of the project. When the state reimbursed the town, the town could pay off the note.
“Even if you did a BAN for $100,000, you’re only going to actually spend a third of that in the long term,” Nessle said.
Both Nessle and Councilman Peter Olesheski said ideally they’d like to see the town push forward and complete the project by November. Olesheski said that if the project had to be broken up into phases and completed over two years, he’d like to see the playground be the first priority.
“The trail project is fantastic,” he said. “But it doesn’t need to be top billing.”
The playground was part of the original plan and the town should move forward with it and get it done, he added. Kids in the town, including his own small children, could benefit from the playground as soon as this summer, he said.
Vanselow, however, initially said he’d like to see the town save some of its resources for the trail system, in case the state doesn’t grant an extension.
“I’d like to move forward with the trail,” Vanselow said, adding that he’d like to believe the town would find a way to pay for it even if the state grant didn’t cover the cost. He urged the town to move forward with the trail while continuing to pursue a dialogue with the state. Vanselow noted that even if the state did include the trail in the grant, reimbursement of grant-eligible expenses could take up to six months, maybe longer.
Ninety minutes into the discussion, after a protracted back-and-forth about the merits of various approaches to accomplishing the project, Olesheski presented a motion to proceed with the construction of the playground portion of the project and the first phase of the trail loop this year and, assuming an extension from the state, complete the project next year.
After much introspection, Councilwoman Kate Nightingale seconded the motion, reasoning that if the state needed to see substantial progress on the project in order to grant an extension, then the playground would be the most attainable way to show substantial progress.
Ultimately, Vanselow agreed to support the motion, calling it an act of good faith. Stevens voted in favor as well, urging the town to put as much “reasonable pressure” on the state as possible to get the project changes approved and an extension granted.
The board agreed to hold off on any decision regarding a bond anticipation note, agreeing that details could be worked out as the project moved forward.
In other news, the board voted to change the schedule at the transfer station to allow town staff to focus on work in the parks two additional days of the week. Consequently, the transfer station will be closed Thursdays and Fridays beginning June 1. It will be open Saturday through Wednesday during the same hours as it currently is.
The Johnsburg Town Board convenes again at 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 15 at Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek.