Plans for Rock Island bike path prompt small-town entrepreneurship

Jacob2It’s a Thursday in early June, and Kim’s Cabins in Windsor are completely booked.

A group of out-of-state bicyclists is staying here, filling all three of the cabins. Owner Kim Henderson is thrilled.

“It’s a little overwhelming how much traffic we’re seeing,” she said.

A year ago, Henderson didn’t have space for a group this size. She had just one cabin. Anticipating a boost in business from the opening of a new bike trail through her town, she decided to hire a local Amish carpenter to build two additional cabins.

She opened her expansion on Memorial Day and hasn’t looked back.

“Folks are coming from all over,” she said. “It’s exciting. Trail riders have become the backbone of my business.”

In December, Windsor became the easternmost point of a new 47.5-mile biking, walking and equestrian trail, officially dubbed the Rock Island Spur of Katy Trail State Park. Windsor is located at the junction of the new Rock Island trail and the Katy Trail.

DSC_0144With riding season in full swing, small businesses along the new trail are seeing a boost as bicyclists arrive needing supplies and looking for places to eat and sleep.

“We were kind of a pass-through for the last 25 years. But now we are literally a destination,” said Henderson, who is also the city administrator. “The trail can be anything that Windsor wants it to be.”

The opening of the Rock Island spur last winter brought Katy Trail access farther west, to Pleasant Hill. This narrowed the gap between the Katy Trail and the millions of people living in metro Kansas City. An additional 17.7-mile extension being built by Johnson County will connect the trail to the sports complex where the Chiefs and Royals play.

DSC_0113While this new westward connection is very important, many people believe the Rock Island corridor’s true potential lies to the east.

The state of Missouri is currently considering whether to take possession of an additional 144 miles of the Rock Island corridor. The route was once used by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The line reaches across the state into eastern Missouri, passing through or near 20 small towns.

The ultimate dream for cycling advocates is to develop this corridor into a bike trail with an eastern connection to the Katy Trail — perhaps across a new bridge in Washington — creating a massive 450-mile bike loop.

“It would be the longest in the U.S. and possibly the world,” said Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., an organization advocating for the trail. “It would connect Missouri’s two largest metro areas, that are themselves international tourism destinations, with a loop so a person could travel to both with minimal backtracking.”

The 144-mile portion of the Rock Island line needed for such a trail is currently owned by Ameren Missouri. The utility supports the trail project and plans to turn the property over to the state in the coming months.

“You look at a number of those rural communities and this could be very helpful to them to bring jobs and economic development back to those areas,” said Warren Wood, vice president of external affairs and communications at Ameren Missouri.

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The state of Missouri has not yet agreed to accept the property. Currently, crews hired by Ameren are removing the Rock Island line’s rails and wooden ties. Once that is complete, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources will conduct an environmental assessment and evaluate the property’s condition.

“The Rock Island Trail Project stands to be a significant undertaking, and it is essential to understand the immediate and long-term liabilities, costs, benefits and opportunities specific to this project,” said Connie Patterson, director of communications at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “It is necessary for the department to take the time to do an assessment of the project and engage stakeholders and the communities who stand to be impacted.”

The state is also asking for public feedback on the potential trail and has set up an online survey.

DSC_0151As the state considers its options, bicyclists are already excited about the potential Rock Island trail in part because of how its scenery and terrain complement the Katy Trail. The existing Katy Trail passes under bluffs and largely follows the path of the Missouri River. In comparison, the Rock Island line crosses the hills, forests and farmland of the northern Ozarks.

The Rock Island corridor also includes unique features such as three long underground tunnels and a breathtaking bridge over the Gasconade River in Osage County.

While bridges and tunnels are exciting, they also add extra costs to building the trail. There is no published timeline for the fundraising effort likely needed to complete the trail, and there’s no estimated date for when it could open.

Some advocates are pushing for the trail to be developed in a piecemeal basis so the easier, less expensive sections that cross through communities along the corridor can be finished sooner. This approach would establish recreational trails in many communities, even if these trails aren’t initially connected together.

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Should building the Rock Island trail be a priority for the state of Missouri? Send us your view: publications@mochamber.com

“Any further development would occur as there is sufficient local and statewide interest in doing so,” said Harris, who supports this approach. “In the worst-case scenario, if it is used in that condition for many years, it would still be a wonderful addition to the many trail communities and to the state of Missouri.”

While plans for the trail are still being formed, business owners along the undeveloped portions of the Rock Island corridor are already anticipating what the trail could mean.

In Cole Camp, where trail construction may still be years away, Mark Kestner has already set up water hookups for seven overnight sites at his Bluebird Outdoor Adventures business, which rents RVs, campers and vacation properties.

“We absolutely expect more business when the trail is finished,” Kestner said. “We feel tremendously blessed with our opportunities in being a part of this trail and seeing it to the end.”

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April Siegfried

Beyond anecdotes from individual business owners, advocates for trail development point to a 2012 report showing that the Katy Trail has an $18.5 million annual economic impact, supporting 376 jobs. About 6 percent of the trail’s 400,000 annual visitors come from outside Missouri. The average visitor spends about $45 each day.

While no one has studied the economic impact of the latest trail, it appears riders on the finished portion of the Rock Island trail don’t mind opening their pocketbooks.

As the trail enters the city limits in Chilhowee, there’s a sign advertising the Chilhowee Corner Store, which opened in March.

Owner April Siegfried said trail business is “huge” on the weekends. Rock Island riders often stop in to buy deli sandwiches, snacks and drinks. She started carrying fresh fruit at their request.

Siegfried said her town is doing what it can to welcome visitors. Camping at the local city park is free. There’s also a horse stable and water access for equestrian riders.

People here believe the trail is going to be important to Chilhowee’s future.

“We are so small, and we’re not on any major highway,” Siegfried said. “It’s going to be essential for us.”

Matthew Rehagen contributed to this story.

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