The abandonment of 1.25 miles of rail in the city of Merrill by Canadian National is an opportunity the River District Development Foundation is looking to take advantage of. The citizen group has unveiled its plans for the River Bend Trail, a hiking and biking trail along the Wisconsin River in Merrill from downtown to Council Grounds State Park.
About half that trail would be on the rail line abandoned last fall by the railroad. The segment of abandoned rail runs from downtown west to near the Lincoln Wood Products plant off Wisconsin Street. The remainder of the trail would require obtaining access from private landowners or using existing right of ways to reach the MARC and Council Grounds.
“The idea is to connect people to parks, parks to businesses and parks to parks,” said Merrill Park and Recreation Director Dan Wendorf. “We’re looking to improve Merrill. There is a lot of passion behind this group and a lot of good ideas. This trail would be a very good tool for not only our citizens to use but to bring visitors to Merrill.”
The foundation received a $10,000 technical assistance grant from the National Park Service in 2011 to develop the concept plan and get public opinion on the project. The foundation is also seeking cooperation from the city of Merrill to develop the trail.
Wendorf, speaking as a supporter of the project, recently gave a report to the Merrill Common Council on the progress of the River Bend Trail. A key step in the project would be the purchase of the abandoned railroad right of way from Canadian National.
On behalf of the project, the city applied for a Stewardship grant through the Wisconsin DNR this year, but the project was not selected for funding. Wendorf said more information is needed for a successful grant application, including an appraisal on the railroad property. A legal description of the property was not available for the grant application. At this point, the River District Foundation does not know what the asking price for the property will be.
The city has received Stewardship funding in the past. Prairie Trails Park, for example, was developed with the help of a Stewardship grant. The deadline for the next round of Stewardship grants is May 1, 2013.
Funding for the trail can come from a combination of any number of sources, including grants, endowments, public-private partnerships, capital campaigns, adopt-a-trail programs, private donors or city support. Maintenance of the trail, Wendorf said, must be a joint effort, involving community groups and city staff.
“This has been talked about for quite a long time and we just want to start moving forward,” he said.
Wendorf said developing the trail would be an opportunity to showcase local business and the environment, while promoting health and wellness.
“It’s reinvesting in people’s quality of life,” he said.
The trail would also create access to a stretch of Wisconsin River frontage that has historically been occupied by industries since the first sawmills were built in Merrill.
“We can reintroduce people to the Wisconsin River. Now is a good time to bring that back to people,” Wendorf said.
The trail in Merrill could become part of a statewide trail network, Wendorf noted, with potential connection to the Bearskin-Hiawatha Trail to the north and the Mountain Bay Trail to the south.
The River Bend Trail is phase 1 of a three-phase project identified by the River District Foundation of Merrill. Phase 2 of the project would extend the trail from downtown to the east toward Hwy. 51. Phase 3 would connect Prairie Trails Park, Stange’s Park and Lions Park via a trail along the Prairie River. At this time, only Phase 1, the River Bend Trail, is being discussed.
“We do recognize this is a long-term project,” said Gene Bebel, chairman of the River District Development Foundation. “We’re going to get it started and we’re going to get it done; it just takes a little longer.”