By Tom Kaiser
In south-central Pennsylvania, a local group has successfully spearheaded an effort to turn an abandoned coal mine into an environmentally sustainable off-road recreation park.
Not only do area leaders believe the park will spur the local economy, but they also hope the site turns into a national riding magnet.
Rock Run Recreation Area, which is expected to open to the public early this month, is a 6,000-acre riding area for ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles located near Patton, Pa., about 90 miles east of Pittsburgh.
High concentrations of aluminum and manganese polluted the mine’s water, but nothing was being done to clean it up and environmental fines were accumulating. As the K&J Coal Co. moved through bankruptcy reorganization proceedings five years ago, state Rep. Gary Haluska heard about the enormous site and its pollution.
Haluska, himself an ATV rider, was already searching for a location to put a riding area in the western part of the state. Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (DCNR) had previously created Project Rider, which sought to convert former surface mine sites into riding areas with ATV and snowmobile registration funds. Haluska scoured 11 counties for a suitable location, until he heard about the K & J Coal Co.’s bankruptcy and became involved in the proceedings.
Finding an owner
Haluska requested and received a $2 million grant from the DCNR to purchase the land at half its original price through an agreement with the bankruptcy judge. But the property needed an owner.
Although the state was supportive of the plan, it didn’t want ownership of the site. Cambria County didn’t have the money, Haluska says, so the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority (CCCRA) was chosen to take the deed for the property.
As a result of the bankruptcy hearings, the bonding company hired an environmentalist to begin solving the site’s pollution problems. The result was $2 million set aside to construct treatment basins and $1 million to perpetually maintain them.
Building a coalition
Haluska’s next step was to form an advisory committee of 15 riders, dealers and other industry members who were interested in the project. They formed Rock Run Inc., a nonprofit organization to develop and manage the facility. The CCRA and the nonprofit group have worked together as there are some grants the nonprofit can get that the authority cannot, and vice versa.
“It gives us the best of both worlds,” Haluska said.
Next, the group hired a park planner from Pittsburgh, Pashek & Associates to develop a master site development plan. Together, they created a five-phase plan to build out the park.
“To put in everything that we designed would’ve been about $21 million, so we broke it into phases,” Haluska said.
The first part, with a tab of $2.9 million, included an entrance road, parking area, 2,500-square-feet visitors’ center and 50 miles of two-way trails. A second DCNR grant of $2.9 million paid for Rock Run’s first phase.
The ultimate goal is a 150- to 180-mile trail system for ATVs, dirt bikes and snowmobiles that will attract 6,000-8,000 riders in its first year. Four practice tracks, a hill climb area, mud bogs and 250 campsites are also on the wish list.
To encourage additional development on-site, 15 acres were zoned for commercial development. Bringing municipal water and sewer lines to the site will cost approximately $3 million, and Rock Run is applying for federal grants to cover the tab.
Jeff Cernic, manager and co-owner of the three area powersports dealerships, is opening a new dealership near Rock Run this summer to attract visiting riders. The 7,000-square-feet facility will include rentals, accessory sales and service.
“People are going to come from states all around just to check [the park] out,” he said. “It is going to have a huge impact.”
Cernic, who has been aware of the Rock Run plan from its inception, says the park will increase sales for every dealer in the area. He also says the idea of creating such parks is one that dealers and others in the industry across the country should look at to help increase their business.
“Once you have a legal place to ride, you’re going to sell machines,” he said.
He added that Pennsylvania is one of the top states for ATV sales and said Rock Run will provide much-needed trails and a boost to the area’s overall economy.
“Cambria County is steel mills and coal mines, so… you can see that we have taken our lumps and we’re just in the process of changing.”
Spreading the Word
Rock Run sent mailings to 567 dealers in the six-state area surrounding Pennsylvania to prime the riding community. It also received a marketing grant to film a TV commercial that has aired in the Pittsburgh area and another to enhance the park’s Web site.
Haluska’s advice to others across the country who are looking to build a riding area is to think locally.
“If you have a good, strong local component,” he said, “all these other agencies will work with you.”