(File photo/Francis Tessier-Burns)

The Prescott-Russell trail is on ‘life support’ until 2020

You know the saying: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

There is no better analogy for the current stalemate between the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) and the Prescott-Russell Trail Corporation.

At the latest meeting of the UCPR’s economic development committee in late February, both sides stuck to their guns as they discussed the way forward.

Representatives of the trail corporation had a series of questions for the committee in an attempt to outline who was responsible for what when it came to establishing partners, applying for grants and ensure the trail’s viability.

Why this discussion had to take place isn’t quite clear as the corporation’s mandate hasn’t changed since its inception in the mid-2000s.

Shedding its responsibility

Thirty minutes into the meeting and Warden François St. Amour had enough of the back and forth.

“The corporation was created to apply for grants,” he said and added that it was now reneging on that responsibility. “Look at your mandate and see what you can do; after that, we can help.”

The comment came after Serge Joly, a member of the corporation, asked if the UCPR would support the organization if it needed to match funds for grant purposes.

Joly wasn’t referring to a specific grant, which left economic development Chair Pierre Leroux a little confused.

He told the corporation to simply come back to the table if it found a grant that required financial support from the UCPR. At that point, council could decide whether it would pursue the application or not.

To clarify, the corporation has access to certain grants the UCPR doesn’t, mainly grants open to non-profits.

Money raised?

East Hawkesbury Mayor Robert Kirby then asked Joly how much money the corporation raised since last summer when it hatched the plan to have four public meetings across Prescott-Russell to garner support and get ideas for future projects.

Joly’s answer was… inconclusive.

He said the corporation will be receiving a grant, though he didn’t disclose the amount, to put towards promoting cycling on the trail. He then added other corporation members were working on a plan to approach the four breweries within the region. Finally, he fell back into an explanation often used by the corporation in the last year: without a long-term plan for the trail from the UCPR, the corporation will have trouble getting financial support from the public.

Kirby said council’s hands are tied when it came to negotiating a new contract with VIA Rail—another talking point often used by the UCPR in the past year.

Currently, the UCPR has an agreement with VIA until 2020 in which it’s essentially renting the trail and assumes all responsibility when it comes to repairs, improvements and even property taxes (which cost $14,500 this year).

Kirby said it was hard to put money into the trail if the UCPR doesn’t even own it.

Long-term vision

Marie-Noëlle Lanthier, councillor for La Nation municipality and member of the trail corporation, explained potential projects involving local breweries. Inspired by a project in South Carolina, the breweries could come together to create a special edition beer where a certain portion of each sale would go to the corporation. Another option would be a campaign where for every beer sold over the summer, a few cents would go to the corporation. In return, the breweries could advertise along the trail.

While presenting the ideas, Lanthier said businesses aren’t interested in a short-term project, however that’s exactly what she had presented.

“If the (UCPR) doesn’t have a long-term vision for the trail,” she said, “then it’s hard to ask the corporation to have a long-term goal.”

In response, Leroux said council’s position had been very clear over the last few years, though he didn’t say what that position was other than he’d like to see more people using the trail.

Leroux said he wasn’t a fan of the “build it and they will come” mentality as there was no guarantee on the investment. Without that guarantee and the uncertainty of the future of the VIA deal, he said it was difficult for the UCPR to have a long-term vision.

It is indeed difficult to know what council’s position is given it slashed the trail’s budget by nearly $300,000 between 2016 and 2017. At $172,000 in this year’s budget—less than half of what it was two years ago—the trail isn’t poised for improvement. About $110,000 of that amount is solely for salaries and benefits of the UCPR employees in charge of cycling trails across the region; it also doesn’t even include $3,000 for toilets along the trail.

“Right now, we’re maintaining minimal upkeep to avoid lawsuits,” said UCPR CAO Stéphane Parisien. “We’re on life support right now until 2020 when we can renegotiate a substantial deal with VIA.”

To ensure the trail’s long-term viability, either the UCPR has to force the issue with VIA Rail before 2020 or the corporation has to take charge and get more financial assistance without the UCPR holding its hand; because right now both sides are backing away from the table.

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