But opening day is drawing near.
The nearly 4,000 acres of land was acquired by Forever Wild, a program of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, on Oct. 2, 1998, to be set aside for public recreational use. It sat largely undeveloped for more than a decade before a local grassroots effort took hold and construction on a bike trail began.
Construction work is set to begin in earnest on the first 12- to 16-mile loop of the trail in January. It could well be ready to open in April — appropriately, if all goes well, in time for Earth Day on April 22, said Mike Poe, member of the Northeast Alabama Bicycling Association, one of the organizers.
The group has raised about $600,000 in grants and donations and will bid out the project in the next couple of months, he said.
“Last year, the trail care crew from IMBA (International Mountain Bicycling Association) came and we did some training of local volunteers,” said Tom Sauret, regional director of the association.
As the trail construction company lays down the trail, the local volunteers will be able to follow behind and polish the trail so it will be ready for use.
The trails are big business in other parts of the country and Sauret said there is nothing like this east of the Mississippi.
“You’d have to go to Park City, Utah, or British Columbia to find the types of trails, the experiences, the variety of bike riding that mountain will provide,” Sauret said. “We truly believe it will help bring thousands of people here to recreate.”
The association estimates that the trail will draw about 50,000 bikers in its first year.
Right now, though, the only access to the trail is off of Alabama 202 near U.S. 78 and Interstate 20 — not near downtown Anniston, which is where the developers were hoping to have the main access point. Poe said the bikers could be a real economic engine for Anniston, but bringing them to the city means having the main access point there.
“That’s where the crowds are going to go and that’s where they’re going to congregate and that’s where they are going to eat and sleep,” Poe said at the Anniston City Council meeting last Tuesday. “In my opinion, that really needs to be downtown Anniston.”
The association has been trying to find a way to connect downtown Anniston with the bike trail for a number of years, he said. In the search to find a suitable place for an access point, the association found a site owned by Solutia off of Monsanto Street. The Northeast Alabama Bicycling Association approached Solutia about using the property in 2009.
The company is committed to allowing the use of the property and donated about $8,000 toward creating a design for a trailhead there, said Solutia communications manager Erin Walsh. The proposed design would be a park with parking, restrooms, changing rooms and an overlook tower.
“We’re happy we were asked to be involved in a project that was designed to help promote Anniston and all the positive things that were going on,” Walsh said.
Solutia has been supportive of the bike trail effort since 2000, Poe said.
“We began to develop a relationship with them,” Poe said. “They were agreeable and so it’s kind of working out…. They even suggested that we rename Monsanto Road, which is the street this park would be located on, to something more appropriate like Coldwater Mountain Parkway or Coldwater Mountain Drive.”
Anniston City Planner Toby Bennington said the city will work with the Metropolitan Planning Organization to create a plan to connect the 5-acre park to the Multimodal Center and downtown Anniston.
The park would be about five to seven miles away from downtown.
The plan could be ready by the time the first loop opens, Bennington said.
“Then it would just be a matter of implementing the plan,” he said.
Making a connection to the center with its access to Amtrak and local bus service would be ideal and it would also lead visitors to the restaurants and shops downtown, Bennington said.
That’s important because visitors do have an economic impact in the community. According to figures from the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce provided by Poe, at the Noble Street Festival/Cheaha Challenge in April, the average cyclist spent $233. If the trail attracts 50,000 cyclists in a year, that could mean as much as $11 million in sales for the area.
Poe asked the City Council if the city would accept the property as a city park and take on the responsibility of maintaining it, if the club were able to take ownership of it.
Councilmen David Dawson and John Spain were supportive of the proposal.
“I think this is just fantastic,” Dawson said. “I think Anniston has the ability to become the biking capital of the South.”
Councilman Ben Little was worried that the property may have been affected by the polychlorinated biphenyls that Monsanto used to manufacture at the plant.
“Maintaining it as a park, I think we have to evaluate how much that is going to cost us,” Little said.
However, Walsh explained, the recreational property is unaffected, the reason being that most of the PCBs were spread primarily by surface water, whereas Coldwater Mountain and the 5-acre property at its base are uphill from the factory.
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.