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Board OKs first land purchase for Jesse Owens State Park

(April 9, 2018) — A new state park neared reality on Monday as lawmakers approved nearly $11.2 million for the purchase of more than 5,000 acres of reclaimed strip-mine land in Morgan County.

The Controlling Board authorized the spending for the purchase of 5,735 acres from American Electric Power by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. The land will become part of the state’s new Jesse Owens State Park, which Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced during his State of the State address last month.

The southeastern Ohio lands are currently open to the public as part of AEP’s 60,000 acre “ReCreation Land.” ODNR spokesman Matt Eiselstein said AEP was looking to sell the land and the agency wanted to keep the area open to the public. ODNR would maintain hunting, fishing, camping and hiking areas on the property.

At the Controlling Board meeting, questions were raised why ODNR is paying $1,963 per acre for the land when similar land previously was given away. An AEP subsidiary donated over 9,000 acres of former coal land for the creation of The Wilds animal park in 1984.

“While there is some market value, and there is some demand … it’s not 60,000 acres worth” of valuable land, said Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington.

ODNR Assistant Chief Financial Officer Ryan Frazee told the board that the agency wanted to keep the land open to the public by purchasing it. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said.

ODNR has reached a tentative agreement to purchase about 13,000 acres of reclaimed coal lands from AEP for the Owens park over the next three years. Future land purchases could expand the park to make it Ohio’s largest.

Gov. Kasich chose to name the park after Jesse Owens, the Ohio State University track and field legend who “stood up to Hitler” by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics — where Hitler had planned to showcase the superiority of the white Aryan race.

No timeline for finalizing the purchase and placing the land under state control has been established, Eiselstein said.