WOW Trail leaders confident extension effort will fall in place

LACONIA — "I am more encouraged than ever by the conversations we've been having about what we're doing," said Alan Beetle, president of the Winnipesaukee-Opechee-Winnisquam (WOW) Trail, the non-profit corporation formed to construct and maintain the trail.

Beetle was alluding to discussions with city officials, including the Advisory Board of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District, at which the prospect of the city increasing its investment in the project has been raised. The TIF Advisory Board has designated completion of the first segment of the second phase of the WOW Trail as its second highest priority, trailing only the "Gateway Plaza" at the Main Street bridge.

These discussions, Beetle said, reflect a growing recognition that the trail represents a valuable community asset, which offers not only recreational opportunities but also economic benefits. "We're seeing more and more people coming off the sidelines and getting involved," he said. He emphasized that the WOW Trail has enjoyed a close partnership with the city and was excited by the growing interest in the project on the part of the Main Street Initiative, business owners and public officials.

The trail is envisioned to cross the city, stretching for nine miles between Belmont and Meredith. The first phase, from Veteran's Square to Lakeport Square, was opened in May, 2010 at a cost of more than $820,000 and the second phase, from Veteran's Square to the Belmont line project is expected to cost about $1 million. Although the WOW Trail has financed and managed the construction, as phases of the trail are completed they are accepted by the city as a municipal parkway.

The city is also the leaseholder for the state rights of way necessary to run the trail close to railroad tracks.

The challenge of funding the project has slowed the pace of construction. To fund design, engineering and construction of the first and second phases, the WOW Trail was awarded two federal grants totaling $738,000 as well as raised money through annual events like the WOW Ball and WOW Fest, which executive director Gretchen Gandini said will be complemented this year by the organization's first annual appeal. Since the project began in 2004, the city has contributed a total of $150,000 in annual appropriations ranging between $20,000 and $7,500. This fiscal year the city has budgeted $17,500 for the project.

Beetle said that the immediate goal is to construct the second phase in 2014, which he called "doable."

Diane Hanley, who is overseeing the design of the second phase, said that the land survey is complete, H.E. Bergeron Engineers, Inc. have been hired and the design is underway. Beetle said that there are several outstanding issues, including easements from several property owners and designing the crossing on North Main Street where the first two phases of the trail join. A boardwalk will be needed to cross a wetland near Bartlett Beach on Lake Winnisquam, which she said represents a significant expense.

The TIF Advisory Board designated the trail a priority because it will connect to the downtown riverwalk, a loop running along both banks of the Winnipesaukee River between the bridges at Fair Street and Church Street. Completion of sections of the riverwalk represent three of the seven highest priorities the board presented to the City Council.

The WOW Trail spent $100,000 to add an extra-wide sidewalk to the Fair Street Bridge to carry the second phase of the trail over the Winnipesaukee River. There is approximately $300,000 on hand and fundraising events are projected to add more than $83,000. The goal of the annual appeal is to raise $500,000.

TIF represents a potential source of funding for the the first segment from North Main Street to Fair Street, which lies within the Downtown TIF District. The estimated cost of this segment is $400,000.

Tax increment financing consists of delineating TIF districts, then applying half of the future property tax revenues that accrue from the increase in assessed value generated by new construction, expansion or renovation of property in the district to service borrowings used to fund public improvements within it. The downtown TIF account has a current balance of $311,353.

City Manager Scott Myers projected the balance to increase by $173,687 in fiscal year 2014 and to grow by 1.5-percent each year thereafter, which he described as a conservative estimate. Over the course of 20 years the TIF district would generate $4,016,280, enough to service a borrowing of a borrowing of $2-million with a 20-year term at 4.249-percent and leave the fund with a balance of $1,226,115.
There are also TIF Districts in both Lakeport and The Weirs, which could be used to finance sections of the WOW Trail passing through those parts of the city.
Beetle welcomed a strategic partnership with the city, stressing that both the WOW Trail and riverwalk will add value to nearby properties, connect neighborhoods to one another and foster economic development.
The third and fourth phases of the trail, which reach from Lakeport through The Weirs to Meredith, Beetle said could be "phases three to ten," explaining that the challenge of financing the seven mile stretch could require it to be undertaken in shorter segments.

"The single biggest concern is the cost," he said.
Apart from costs, since 2006 the South Down Recreation Association has opposed building the trail in the railroad right-of-way along the western shore of Paugus Bay through South Down Shores and Long Bay. Despite several efforts to negotiate an alternative route, Beetle said flatly "there is no alternative to the railroad right-of-way. It's a state-owned right-of-way we are entitled to use and that's where we'll go."
Beetle acknowledged that by requiring a four-foot high chain link fence between the trail and the tracks the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (DOT) has exacerbated the situation not only with residents of South Down Shores but also with others whose property abuts the trail.
Fencing is an issue for everyone," Beetle said. "It's just not going to fly in people's backyards, especially if they live on the lake." He said that he was encouraged that DOT has agreed to a split-rail fence on the second phase where a homeowner has beach rights on Lake Winnisquam. "We hope it's a precedent setter," Beetle said. "We're hoping DOT will give us some options we can work with."
Although little more than one of the nine miles of planned trail has been built, Beetle stressed that the project has already demonstrated its promise. A survey found that more than 40,000 people — 61-percent adults and 57-percent women — use the trail each year while an economic impact study, prepared by the Belknap Economic Development Council, reported that the trail generated $1.8-million in spending by visitors to the city.