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Building an OHV Park with RTP Funding
In the sport of Off Road recreation, specifically for Jeeps and 4 wheel drive vehicles, we have seen efforts from our government to close off millions of acres that have, for years, been accessible to us for our recreation. Many have looked into the future of our sport and figured out the only way we will have places to go is to either work with local government in partnership to develop or protect areas, or privately create areas for the public. In the past five years there has been an explosion in private Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) park development. There have been more than 30 parks open throughout the nation for the public to use and enjoy.
How do you start your OHV park? There are a couple of ways to purchase land and develop a park. The first and easiest way is to have a pocket full of money and go buy land. Or as most of us say, hope your rich uncle dies and leaves you all the money you need. Most of us don't have that kind of money sitting around idle to invest in a park. Most small parks will easily gobble up about $200,000-$1,000,000 to get the gates open and have a nice place to go four-wheeling.
Another way is to pool together an investor group. However, due to the usually low revenue stream created by the park goers and the high maintenance cost to keep a park like this open, most investors look at an OHV park as a poor return on investment.
The third option is to look into grant funds that are in place to help people develop outdoor recreational opportunities. This is the route I chose after exhausting my first two options. Following is a brief description of the steps I needed to take in order to get the gates open to Kansas Rocks Recreation Park.
In 1996 I started the Kansas City 4WD Association. I soon realized the growing need for recreation land in the Kansas City area. My search for a solution then began. Many options were explored, including developing a relationship with land owners to be able to use their land for recreation, leasing land, and buying land.
My frustrations led to further research that ultimately led me to find a federal grant that was available through the Kansas Department of Wildlife & Parks for developing recreational trails. It was initially called the TEA 21 program and is more commonly known as the Recreational Trails Program (RTP).
[The BlueRibbon Coalition was instrumental in securing the original RTP and subsequent re-funding. For more information on the program and its history, visit BRC on the web (www.sharetrails.org/history).]
RTP monies are collected from a portion of gasoline taxes to provide opportunities to enhance existing parks and trail systems or develop new parks and trail systems. Generally the funds go to state and local parks. I was the first non-governmental private organization in Kansas to ever apply for this grant money. The grant is an 80% reimbursable grant.
The first step was to create a 501 (C)(3) not for profit business to be eligible for the grant. I developed Kanrocks Recreation Association, Inc as the development and management entity to create the park. Since the grant was reimbursable, Kanrocks first had to arrange the up front financing and developing the park on paper to apply for the grant. Many clubs and individuals put in many hours helping develop the park that made up our twenty percent match.
As difficult as it is to write a federal grant proposal and application, I soon realized that was the easy part. It took me about a year to figure out the management, development, erosion control, noise control, revenue stream, cost of maintenance and everything else I needed to write the grant proposal. I submitted the proposal in August of 2001 and received the grant in December 2001.
During the grant writing process, I had many questions about developing an OHV park. I went to the internet and searched places I knew would have answers, like United Four Wheel Drive Association (UFWDA), BlueRibbon Coalition (BRC), the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council (NOHVCC) and the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA). These groups have been helping OHVers build, maintain, access, and keep open riding areas for years through their publications. Some of the publications I relied on heavily were âOHV Park Guidelines Manual' and âManagement Guidelines for OHV Recreation', both from NOHVCC. These two books are worth their weight in gold to anyone wanting to develop an OHV park. Other publications I found to be very helpful were UFWDA's âPublic Land Owner's Manual', AMA's âHow To Communicate with Government' and âOff Highway Trails Guidelines for Design, Construction, Maintenance and User Satisfaction'. I also used BRC's Media Guide and the Federal Highway Administration's âRecreational Trails Program Interim Guidance'. Another great tool I used and still use today is the âRecreational Leadership Training Course' (RLTC) by BRC's Del Albright. This is an excellent tool for learning how to lead and manage volunteer groups. Del is an ambassador for BRC, and has written volumes of articles and information that is extremely pertinent to any outdoor recreationist.
At this point, I assembled a group of 22 very committed and dedicated individuals as our board of directors. We started meeting weekly to start planning and the land search began! As anyone who has ever driven through Kansas knows, it's not the best place for a really diverse park. We set our sites on a 90 mile radius of the Kansas City metro. Anything west was flat, north turned into corn country, east was great Ozark hills but was in Missouri, so it seemed the only logical direction was to go south. We spent evenings and weekends looking at about 50 pieces of land before finding one that would work for us. We bought 120 acres in a county that was zoned.
We found out we needed a Conditional Use permit to create a park on the land after we bought it. As a part of that process we had to send a registered letter to every household within 1,000 yards of our land to let them know what we had in mind for our land. That gave the neighbors just enough ammunition to create a lot of propaganda against us. As we entered our first of 6 meetings with the county commissioners and towns folks, we thought we were thoroughly prepared for the onslaught. After our 30 minute presentation of how we were going to build and manage the park, to include a 7 minute video trying to show them what this sport entailed, the floor was open.
Our presentation group included a person who owned 4 banks, 3 business owners, 2 factory workers and a policeman. We were all equally stunned at the response of the town's people. They called us daughter rapers, said we would be cutting down their fences and barbequing their cattle, running them off the roads and compared us to the El Diablo's motorcycle gang. This began a year long effort to develop the land we just bought.
Our next 5 meetings were filled with our statistics on noise, water, traffic counts, traffic flows, road bed construction, everything we could get our hands on to refute and settle their concerns. I invited each of the 4 county commissioners to the land, individually, to walk it and show them what we were going to do. At the end of it all, they voted against letting us have a conditional-use permit. We could wait a year and re-apply or move on. We were on a time frame to use the grant funds or lose them. We decided to sell this land and look for something else in a friendlier county.
Through all of this year long process we still met weekly to continue developing the park. We looked at another 30 pieces of land and finally found what we thought would be the perfect land. It had huge rocks, an elevation change of 160' with several canyons and hills. As our realtor presented him with a sales offer, the owner sold it out from under us to his neighbor. We were ready to throw in the towel when our realtor said he had another idea. He talked with the neighbor on the other side who owed 240 acres of the same exact terrain. However, he was not interested in selling. We talked with KDWP and were given the OK to start talking about long term leasing with the owner.
We finally struck up a deal for a 15 year lease in April 2003 and got started on developing the land. This land was in a non-zoned county and although we didn't have to go through the same process as before, we did develop a relationship with the county commissioner, who just happened to live a half mile down the road. We had people on the land every Friday afternoon through Sunday cutting trails, putting in playgrounds, putting up picnic shelters and buildings, all through volunteer help. We finally opened the gates to our park on Labor Day 2003. With nary a drop of rain all summer, our grand opening was fraught with a 10 inch rain. Nevertheless we had over 140 rigs and 250 people there to see what we have been so diligent in developing for the last 3 years.
At the same time we continued to develop the park's vision and operations, we continued looking for liability insurance. It is a must for an OHV park. Unfortunately, the insurance industry isn't very familiar with four wheeling as a family sport. It wasn't until we had been open for over three years that we finally found a company that would provide the liability policy we needed at a reasonable premium.
This park was to be the people's park. It is managed with a volunteer group. We developed an Adopt-A-Trail program so clubs can be a part of our maintenance and success. They have also created a feeling of ownership that helps in policing the park during open hours. Although the park is a daily-fee-usage park, the money goes back into the park to help further develop it.
Beginning our fifth year, we were given the opportunity to buy the land. The process has become more old hat to gain another RTP grant to help us out. However, the process is still there and has to be followed. For our 20% match this time, we counted on contributions from park visitor and supporters. Through the lease we had some pretty good restrictions on what we could do. Now as the owners, we can really develop the park into a premier park in the Midwest. After 4 years of operations we finally saw our first small profit. Thankfully we don't have any debt and can continue building the park's amenities and diversification.
If you want to build an OHV park, I hope I have given you a little bit of a feeling of what's involved. It takes a strong sense of conviction, courage, perseverance, and a clear vision that will not easily become convoluted and unworkable. It also needs good leadership, with business-minded and goal-oriented people. Don't do it for the money. The money isn't enough to live on. Do it to save the sport and to create something that future outdoor recreationist can enjoy.
--Questions or comments regarding this article should be directed to the BlueRibbon Coalition: Phone: 208-237-1008, Fax: 208-237-9424. Email: