• 63°

Fugate discusses trail systems with chamber

Chris Fugate, state representative from the 84th District, spoke about the importance of trail systems during the Harlan Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday. Fugate introduced chamber members to the benefits of participating in a trail authority by reflecting on the many outcomes West Virginia and Virginia residents have seen over the past few years.

Fugate said learning the “business side of everything” and how it works has been challenging for him and something he has enjoyed learning, adding he understands southeast Kentucky, especially in Harlan, has experienced a lot of “downturn.”

“For the most part, that’s most of what we’ve had for us to survive and live and be able to raise our families on, so I’m always ready to defend the coal industry and do all I can to help the coal industry. But even know, we’re still losing jobs in the industry,” Fugate said. “I know we have to diversify the economy somehow or another.”

He said he was approached before he took office in 2017 by a man in Perry County who introduced the idea of adventure tourism to him. Fugate said Harlan already has the trail systems and “is doing really good” with the help of local businesses.

“When he pitched the idea to me about a trail system, I was very skeptical of the concept and wondering how could that really benefit the whole region of southeastern Kentucky,” Fugate said, adding the Perry County man explained the benefits of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Systems in West Virginia.

He said he met with other representatives and was able to help put House Bill No. 156 in motion in 2017 “that really allowed Kentucky, especially southeast Kentucky, to establish a trail authority for ATVs, horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking trails, kayaking – anything to put people outside to enjoy it.”

Fugate added the House Bills passed to link all of the region together passed “with flying colors,” leading a handful of representatives to visit the Hatfield-McCoy Trail Systems and to talk with overseers of the system.

“We met with Jeffrey Lusk and he handed us everything they’ve done for 17 years – the financial reports, statements, the blueprints of what we can do in Kentucky the same way they did it in West Virginia,” Fugate said. “When we started going over the numbers, we saw that their state legislature invested $1.5 million into their trail authority out of the state budget. In return last year, they received $22.5 million for eight small counties in southern West Virginia.”

Fugate said the bill being passed in Kentucky would link all of the southeastern region by its trails, giving counties like Harlan the opportunity to boost economic development and tourism.

“I’m excited about being able to sponsor that bill and promote it and to see so many people come together for one cause,” he said. “When’s the last time you saw around 28 county governments that were all on board about the same thing? When’s the last time you saw 97 house members out of 100 vote ‘yes’ on a bill?”

Fugate added the bill being passed would also give land owners sovereign immunity.

“So if we say we need to cross your property, it gives you immunity from any liability that someone may face if we didn’t have this law in place,” he said. “It doesn’t cover personal stuff, like if you built a campground and people come off the trail and onto your property. You’d have to have your own insurance to cover the campground, but the actual trail would be covered and the authority would have to have its own insurance to cover any damages from people.”

Fugate said he and representatives of different parties are working together with the best interest for the region in mind to help spur economic development and tourism.