LACONIA — Only a few people turned out for a Walk with the Candidates along the WOW Trail Saturday morning and most of the conversation of those taking part centered on the trail itself and the role it can play in the city's economy.
The event was described by Gretchen Gandini, WOW Trail executive director, as a ''walk and talk'' session for the public which would provide an opportunity for those taking part to gain a new appreciation of the trail, which she said is an underutilized resource.
Mayoral candidates Kaileif Mitchell and Ed Engler took the walk, which got underway at 10 a.m.,. along with Ward 6 City Council candidates Tony Felch and Armand Bolduc. Joining them were three of Mitchell's children, his parents Harry and Deb, Felch's daughter Alexis, and WOW Trail President Alan Beetle.
Bolduc expressed concern about the amount of bittersweet, an invasive species, growing along the trail, saying that it will eventually overwhelm the trees it winds itself around.
Beetle said that plans for the trail, which is envisioned as stretching for nine miles between Belmont and Meredith, has been underway for about 10 years. 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 committee 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.
He said that 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.
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.
The City Council is currently considering a proposal to borrow $1.55 million for a variety of downtown projects, $400,000 of which would be used to help complete the second phase of the WOW Trail and would use proceeds from the city's Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District account to pay off the bond issue.
Engler said that he is a huge supporter of that project, noting that the WOW Trail is in essence a public park and that while there are issues with how it will be completed along an active railway, which he observed is not really all that busy, that it has tremendous potential to bring recreation oriented tourists to the area.
Mitchell, who said the WOW Trail is part of his regular exercise regime, said that while he can see using TIFF money from the downtown and Lakeport districts for each of the WOW Trail segments, he is not ready to endorse the current proposal.
''I want to see what other needs we have and how can we make sure that what happens is equally shared,'' said Mitchell.
Beetle said that he was pleased to see the candidates are supportive of the WOW Trail efforts and see its value to the county.
Mayoral candidate Kaileif Mitchell walks along the WOW Trail while carrying his 5-year-old daughter daughter Zypporah on his shoulders. Ward 6 Counselor Armand Bolduc is shown at left. (Roger Amsden photo for The Laconia Daily Sun)