Gerry James, a local outdoor activity advocate, remembered the solace he found in the bike trails surrounding Fort Hill about three years ago when he first moved to downtown Frankfort.
The miles of trails weaving along the hill’s face inside Leslie Morris Park, upon which sits the Civil War battle site of Fort Hill, were rough in their design at the time. Some were little more than traces formed by the deer that populate the 120-acre park and most were peppered with thorn bushes. But the trails were a challenging exercise, an easy excuse to get outside and close to his downtown home, James said.
“It’s the closest city park I live by,” he said. “It was convenient to ride the trails at Fort Hill, so I was super excited to hear they were being developed. But now apparently it’s illegal to ride a bicycle anywhere inside that city park.”
James was one of several Frankfort residents in support of a multiuse trail project in the park feeling frustrated after the city’s decision. Commissioners voted 3-2 Monday night during a work session meeting to ban bicycles from the entire city-owned park after plans of the trail came to light last month. And while opponents of the project considered it a win for historical Civil War-site preservation, supporters were feeling discouraged by the city.
“It makes Frankfort look like an anti-progress city,” said James, founder of the Explore Kentucky Initiative. “We needed positive action, because we have young people who leave here to go elsewhere. And I think it’s partly due to infrastructure. You have to use the land to get people to stay.”
The subject of the bike trails only came to light during a commission meeting at the beginning of May with the public questioning its place on a site considered hallowed Civil War ground. Historians argue that Frankfort would likely not be the state capital had the victor of a skirmish on Fort Hill been the Confederacy rather than a local militia.
Commissioners initially flirted with placing a moratorium on the construction of a multiuse trail in the 120 acres of woods that surround the 12-acre hilltop of Fort Hill. However, they were convinced otherwise until they got both sides of the story.
One of the people to provide the other side was project designer Troy Hearn.
Hearn, coordinator of the statewide bicycle and pedestrian program for the Transportation Cabinet, spent months on the designs and construction of the trail. He constructs similar projects all over the state and said they sometimes become contentious. However, the controversy over the Fort Hill trails was particularly unnerving because of its personal ties and because he felt he covered his bases, Hearn said.
“To have a project like this in your own hometown – that was thoroughly vetted – to have it killed for petty reasons, it stings,” Hearn said. “It’s a shame for the city, a shame for the citizens and the next generation. It’s embarrassing.”
According to city documents, the project began in October 2018 with $3,000 from the Frankfort Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites, $500 from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association (KyMBA) and $1,200 from Strong Properties. It was designed to be at least 300 feet from any environmental, historical and archaeological sites and included new trail development and existing trail improvement and received volunteer labor from the Boy Scouts in order for them to earn the rank of Eagle Scout.
Danny Strong, owner of Strong Properties and the property where the trails would have accessed the park, said that when the project started he had dumpsters filled with debris that the groups cleared from the hillside surrounding the historic Fort Hill site. But what could have been an opportunity to connect a historic site to downtown while promoting local businesses was sabotaged by one group of people influencing the commission.
“They’re making rules however they see fit,” Strong said. “Investors and business owners don’t appreciate that, and they do not want to invest money in a city that doesn’t want to help business.”
In mid-March, the city got wind of the activity in the 120 acres of forest surrounding the Civil War-era earthwork fort remains. Two city meetings followed with a total of about five and a half hours of public comment given on the subject. Those against allowing bikes emphasized the historical significance of Fort Hill and the impact on the residential area at the hill’s foot, and those is favor promoted the economic and health benefits to the community of a multiuse trail in downtown Frankfort. In the end, though, commissioners decided 3-2 against bikes being allowed in the park.
One of the last supporters to speak at the meeting on the subject, David Stumbo, presented commissioners with a petition signed by 700 supporters of the trail. His signature topped the list. Stumbo said he was disappointed in the commission’s decision but felt that the amount of support of trail could be a signal for action in the future.
“If nothing else, there is a substantial population of folks paying attention to these issues that would be more motivated for progress,” he said. “We’re going to run with it to tell leaders we’re tired of feet dragging.”
In recent other projects in Frankfort, city staff has approached the city with requests for the appearance of unity in order to attract investors to the area. Hearn said he couldn't see how an inability to reach a consensus on a bicycle trail promoted that image.
"I'm not seeing a silver lining -- other than people for progress may unite and get new elected leaders," he said.
James had just finished drafting a statement to his audience of a few thousand people through Explore Kentucky Initiative. He also said that the recent friction on the commission, although disappointing, could turn out to be a positive.
“It’s causing many people to mobilize together over these topics,” James said. “Maybe this is the motivation we needed.”