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Monday, July 27, 2015

Ignite Highland Hills Park THIS Friday

Fort Thomas residents are gathering this Friday to clean up the trails at Highland Hills Park.

Many Fort Thomas residents have witnessed—and enjoyed—the transformation of local parks. "The city has worked extremely hard on getting all the parks in Fort Thomas beautified," says resident Jeff Mohr. "The multi-year renovation to Tower and Rossford over the last few years as well as the facilities—playground, shelters, bathrooms—at Highland Hills were tremendous." The state, however, denied funding for renovations to Highland Hills Park's trails. "It never gained its momentum back after that ruling," Mohr says. "The existing trails have since become overwhelmed with weeds and fallen trees."

Mohr and his son enjoy running together, and one evening they decided to try Highland Hills Park. "When we got to the trails that evening there were so many trees down we had to shorten our run." Mohr reach out to his good friend Chris Rust, a Fort Thomas Fire Department firefighter and paramedic, and Highlands Bluebirds assistant cross country coach. They then talked to Brian Alessandro, a language arts teacher at Highlands Middle School and Highlands Bluebirds head cross country/track and field coach.

"Highlands' cross country team uses Highland Hills Park as their practice facility/meeting area," Rust says. "That's all it took."
There were many partners that helped plan and put on the event. Provided. 

The cross country teams has practiced in Highland Hills Park for many years. "During the time I ran at Highlands, until I graduated in 1998, we ran the trails daily," Alessandro says. "Over the last 15 years, the trails have slowly declined. Currently, I do not allow the team to run through them because it's very narrow and what I consider dangerous with all of the trees down."

Together these three residents have lit a fire within the Fort Thomas community, building up to the Ignite Highland Hills Park event this Friday, 8am to 2pm, in which volunteers will come together to clean up the trails for everyone's future enjoyment. They, along with many other residents have already put forth a great deal of planning, donations and time. Now, all they need is YOU.

In the beginning, Mohr, Rust and Alessandro bounced ideas back and forth on what was needed to make the trails better. "Jeff worked hard on getting funds and resources through Duke Energy," Mohr says. Mohr works for Duke Energy and is the Duke Energy Sponsor Leader for Friday's event. He also created the events Facebook and GoFundMe page.

Alessandro, Rust and Rust's sons—Chay, Connor and Curtis, all cross-country runners—walked the current trails, clearing brush with chainsaws. They removed several large downed trees that were blocking the trails and plotted a new trail to be constructed—all in anticipation of Friday's event.

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones, LLC

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones, LLC

In addition to being a cross country coach, Rust says he's always enjoyed doing outdoor things. "I was inspired at an early age by an uncle of mine, Charles 'Buddy' Crail," Rust says. "My Uncle Buddy, as we called him, was a forest ranger for many years. He was in charge of public relations and education at Daniel Boone National Forest. One of the things he would do is have 'Smokey the Bear' show up at different events. Yes, I have been Smokey the Bear—kind of funny thinking about it now seeing that I'm a firefighter." 

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones, LLC

Cincinnati Drones was a huge help in the beginning, providing clear video of the trail and its issues. They also will be at Friday's event, filming the trail restoration project.

The trio's goals for Friday include clean-up work as well as expansions. "We hope to have a great turnout of volunteers that are willing to get their hands dirty," Mohr says. "Our hope is to not only widen the trails but also add additional trails." 

Alessandro says that the current trails, which were established in 1979, are quite short. "Therefore, they run mostly on the roads through town," he says. "The expansions and cleaning of the trails would allow runners, walkers and the community a large wooded area to enjoy the park."

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones LLC

Specifically, the group plans to repair the current trail by clearing weeds and brush along the edges, repair a bridge, add a new bridge, install bar crossings that will direct water flow to slow erosion across the trails, reroute some trails and add gravel. "The new bridge is a project that will be handled by Brett Marzano, a Fort Thomas Boy Scout from troop 86 working on his Eagle Scout," Rust says. "This part includes cleaning out and restoration of a creek bed so that runoff doesn't wash out the trail."

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones LLC

They also plan to add a new section to connect with Ohio Avenue. "This will require building a new trail and construction of another bridge," Rust says. "There is a trail that currently goes through a water detention area/pond at the end of Ohio. This trail is muddy and not well-defined. It is too dangerous to run on due to the mud and having to traverse over a small stream that runs through the middle of the water detention area. The new trail will run above the water detentions are. The latest heavy rains have left a line of demarcation allowing you to see just how high the water can get. What we hope to accomplish that day is getting the new bridge built and the trail route established. I have been in contact with members of the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy on the building of the new trail. They have connections with members of the Tree Commission and CORA (Cincinnati Off Road Alliance). Their experience in trail construction will be valuable in this project by building a trail that is sustainable and least harmful to the natural surroundings of the forest in the park." 

Perhaps one of the most inspiring aspects of this event is the community and various organizations' involvement. "I think anything that draws the community together is so good," says Debbie Buckley, Renaissance Manager and Economic Development Director for the City of Fort Thomas. Buckley is in charge of food for Friday's event. She had secured Holtman's Donuts for breakfast, 150 boxed lunches from Chick fil A donated at half price, and water donated from Lowes and individuals. "It's so cool to see people volunteering and offering services and donating things to make this go," Buckley says.

Buckley also put Rust in touch with Kat Pepmeyer at Cincinnati Community ToolBank. "They loan out tools for volunteer efforts focused on community projects," Rust says. "There is a nominal fee for this, but Kat has arranged a discount for us." 

Individuals like Pepmeyer also have been been a great asset. Rust says Ron Dill, Director of General Services and Assistant City Administrator for the City of Fort Thomas has been extremely helpful with this project. "This is something that he has been working toward for a long time," Rust says. The Highlands Cross Country team and family members will be working the event, as well as the Fort Thomas Fire Department. "I have been a member of the Department for 15 years as a firefighter/paramedic and have seen how the Fire Department has helped in the safety planning of many events such as the 4th at the Fort and Merchants and Music, so I knew they would be a great resource in the operational planning of this project," Rust says.

Lori Valentine, owner of Fort Thomas Coffee, was the first Fort Thomas business owner to jump on board, Rust says. "She is providing coffee so we can get fired up early!" 

And, of course, there's Duke Energy, who, in addition to sponsoring the event, is donating supplies, food and volunteers.

The benefits of the Ignite Highland Hills Park Trail are numerous. "I feel like this park has so much more to offer than the others because of its links to the neighboring streets," Mohr says. "It's a way of bringing everyone together without having to walk through the sometimes-busy North Fort Thomas Ave."

Rust agrees. "This project will benefit the Fort Thomas community by making Highland Hills Park a beautiful, safe place for residents, families and athletes to walk, run and gather," he says. "This will also better connect neighborhoods. This was pointed out to me by Ron Dill in the early planning of the new trail connection. People will be able to walk safely through the park. Many people already use the unsafe, undefined trail at the end of Ohio. The new section will make this much safer and enjoyable." 

photos provided and/or courtesy of Cincinnati Drones LLC

Future work includes trail exercise stations, benches, maps and mile markers. "We are looking at a three-year project but that can all change if we get enough money up front and enough volunteers in the first event," Mohr says.

To donate time, go here. To donate money, go here. For more information, contact Mohr here


  1. Thank you!! I love walking thru HHP but have found very difficult due to all the downed trees. I talked to Mary Brown and also Trisha Schroeder and they gave me some suggestions on who to contact. I won't be able to help this wk.end but will gladly help in the future!!

  2. Mary Brown isn't the mayor anymore. If fact, she was pretty useless for the last 10 years when she was mayor.