Officials of the Stark County Parks District Thursday asked residents and users of its trails system to say what should be the district's top priorities for the next five years.

WASHINGTON TWP. Officials from the Stark County Park District met with roughly 20 residents in an open community meeting Thursday evening to get feedback on what they think should be the district's top priorities the next five years.

The meeting on the district's five-year plan from 2019 to 2023 took place at First Christian Church at 1141 W. Beech St. near the park district's Iron Horse Trail trailhead.

Some residents said they want the extension and greater connectivity of the existing park district trail network. Especially of the Iron Horse Trail that goes through Alliance and Washington Township. And developing a trail at University of Mount Union's campus that would connect to the trail.

Dick Campbell, 80, of Washington Township, said he was a bicyclist who would like to see more paved trails and an expanded Iron Horse Trail beyond Cenfield Street NE.

"We like the bike trails when they go somewhere," he said.

The Stark County Park District has hired the Stark County Regional Planning Commission to help put the five-year plan together.

RPC's chief of planning, Rachel Forchione, presented a slide presentation. She said 573 people had completed the park district's online survey rating what the district has to offer.  Forchione said the goal is to complete the plan by February.

Forchione asked attendees to go through a list of recommendations suggested by residents at an initial round of six meetings in July and August. And then check off which are the top priorities to them.

Stark County Parks Director Bob Fonte said that getting the feedback "tells us what our weaknesses are. ... A lot of times it's balancing what the public wants with how much money we have left."

The county park system has a budget of about $10 million a year, he said, with a countywide park levy providing about $6.5 million a year and state and federal grants funding the rest.

Fonte said the park district has had a five-year plan for the past 20 years.

"It sets priorities for projects for the next five years," he said. "We can't deliver what the public wants if we don't hear what they have to say. ... Do we open up more equestrian trails? Do we open up more mountain bike trails? Do we open up more what do they call it all-purpose trails, which is bike and hike? Those decisions are made based on the public impact ..."

Fonte said based so far on residents' feedback, it seems the top two concerns are improving trail connectivity and providing flush toilets on trails rather than port-o-potties.

He said the next major development in expanding the district's trail system is when the park district opens the tunnel sometime next year under a newly widened Market Avenue N. Once the district builds trails on the west and east of that, it would connect the Hoover and Middle Branch trails.

The park district is in a legal dispute with farmers over right-of-way on the Iron Horse Trail that's now before the 5th District Court of Appeals, said Sarah Buell, the parks district projects and administration manager.

Buell said the former focus centered on telling the public about the few trail segments and parks it did have.

But now that residents are more familiar with the park system's offerings, they now asking for an expansion of its trail system and longer trails, she said.

So "these kinds of meetings are very helpful to us," she said. "What do you want the most? We want to make sure their priorities are our priorities."

Fonte estimated that the district had accomplished about 75 to 85 percent of the goals of the 2014 to 2018 five-year plan.

"To me if we hit 100 percent, we didn't push ourselves," he said.

Reach Repository writer Robert Wang at (330) 580-8327 or robert.wang@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @rwangREP