How much land do recreational horseback riders need to bring maximum economic benefit to the region where they ride?
That’s the central question in a business stalemate between the people who want the land and the people who have the land at McClellan.
In 2019 the McClellan Development Authority, charged with bringing about the best usage of the land formerly occupied by an Army post, deeded to Calhoun County, at no cost, 900 acres located between the eastern bypass portion of U.S. 431 and Iron Mountain Road.
The McClellan chapter of Back Country Horsemen of America organization partnered with the county to develop the land, opening the Camp McClellan Horse Trails in 2019. The BCHA McClellan chapter makes and maintains the trails, while the county, along with other benefactors including the non-profit equestrian group, has been busy with infrastructure projects to improve the facility.
But now the county and the equestrian chapter feel it’s time to grow. They have requested the acquisition of an additional 700 acres located across Iron Mountain Road which would make the network of trails one of the biggest in the Southeast, essentially doubling the trails’ mileage.
The county wants the land for free but the MDA is basically saying “pony up” if it wants additional property. The MDA has offered the county a lease for a much smaller parcel of land, but the county passed on that.
MDA director Julie Moss said: “They were given over 900 acres for horse trails from the MDA. They requested to be given, for free, another 700 plus acres; the MDA board did offer a lease for a portion of that property but the county commission declined the offer.”
Both County Commissioner JD Hess and Charlotte Alford, vice president of the Back Country Horsemen local chapter, are in agreement that the offer from the MDA, a lease for 167 acres, is just not doable.
“First of all, 167 acres is nothing when you’re trying to build trails,” Alford said, adding that only 4 miles could be blazed on the parcel the MDA offered.
Alford said that if the county leases the property from the MDA and develops the additional trails, the MDA could terminate the lease in the future, negating all of the efforts put into the property.
It’s all about the miles of trails, Alford said. Longer trails will attract visitors from farther away, creating even more ecotourism dollars for the area.
“If you’ve got 10 miles, they ain’t travelling three hours to go ride 10 miles, you can do that in two hours. This would double our trails,” Alford said.
“You’re going to bring in people from everywhere, we’ve got calls from even western states because they’ve gotten wind of it, when we bring these people in, they come in here, they disconnect from their trailers, and they go to town, they go to town to eat, they go to Tractor Supply, they go to Pickett’s, they go to Walmart,” Alford said. “They go to the grocery store, liquor store, they gas up normally before they leave to go home, it’s unbelievable at the money.”
Alford said the property in question is very mountainous and believes it is too rugged for any type of development other than horse trails.
“I don’t know what in the world can be done with it, I mean I really don’t — that’s just my opinion and several others. You can’t build over there, there’s no electric there’s no water, even if they get the water tower I don’t see how anybody could build over there,” she said.
Moss, on the other hand, believes the property has potential for development and could generate much-needed dollars to fund the MDA’s primary mission.
“We’re tasked with redevelopment out here, and in order to do some more of that and in some other areas we are focused on infrastructure because you know it’s very costly,” Moss said.
A water tower project is being discussed which would eventually provide water to the Iron Mountain Road area.
“We have to lease or sell property so that we can put that back into the property out here to continue to develop, so leases themselves are critical to the success of the area,” she said.
As far as Moss is concerned, the MDA board has spoken.
“The board offered a lease, which the county commission declined, so there is nothing else for the board to do or vote on,” Moss said.
Moss said the MDA gets money from leasing or selling property.
“We don’t survive if they don’t lease or sell something,” Moss said, adding the MDA is focusing on infrastructure for the former Army base.
“Time is now to get that done,” she said.
Tourism and quality of life
Calhoun County Commissioner J.D. Hess said the additional property is about tourism and quality of life.
“We requested some additional property across the road from where we’re at now, which would make us one of the largest in the Southeast, and it would make us more attractive,” Hess said. “We’ve had people from Arkansas to call (and say) they’d like to come but they don’t want to ride for two days. They want to ride for a week, which would mean more trails and land to do that.”
“The horse industry is one of the 10th largest in the state of Alabama — there’s a lot of money in this. We’ve got a lot of other things to offer, bicycles is the one I’m real proud of, the bicycles and everything they’ve done, and it’s bringing in a lot,” Hess said.
Infrastructure for the horse trails is ongoing. A large pavilion with a fireplace was recently completed and concrete has been poured for a general store with a concession area for guests. Plans for the campground — which is primitive now — include building a bathhouse and adding electricity and water
Hess said a grant has been applied for to handle the cost of planned sewer work and campground upgrades.
“People want to come in for a week at a time, this is a pretty big deal ... it’s really going to be one of the nicest in the whole state,” Hess said, referring to the currently achievable layout for the trails.
Hess hopes the MDA will change its tune about the property.
“The next step is for them to do what’s right for tourism and the betterment of the quality of life in Calhoun County and deed that property to the county,” Hess said.
“We’ve requested the land, we’ve had a response from every board member I know of, basically, most all of them and they were for us, they wanted us to have it, ‘you’re going to get it,’ but when it comes down to it, just vote yes or no, you’re going to give it to us or not, then we’ll move on,” Hess said.
For now, Alford will keep pursuing the land deal.
“We’re lobbying for it big time, we don’t understand the denial, we just don’t understand it and they won’t give us a reason,” Alford said.