The River District Development Foundation of Merrill expects to close the purchase shortly on a stretch of railroad property in the city of Merrill. The Foundation has agreed on a price of $137,500 with Canadian National Railroad for the abandoned rail bed that runs from downtown to the west side, totaling close to 12 acres of property.
A capital campaign has raised the funds necessary for the property purchase, which would allow construction of a new hiking and biking trail from downtown to near the Lincoln Wood Products plant off Wisconsin Street.
Although the Foundation is paying for the property, the city of Merrill will be the official owner – necessary to make the trail project eligible for state grant funding. The city has been approved for a Stewardship Grant through the Department of Natural Resources.
“The payment has to come to the city and we have to be the owner to get the grant,” said City Administrator Dave Johnson. “Nothing can happen until the city is in the position to take ownership.”
The Stewardship Grant will pay 50 percent of the acquisition cost, along with 50 percent of the expense for some of the studies done prior to purchase.
The city’s Board of Public Works last Wednesday voted to forward a resolution to acquire the property to the city council’s Oct. 8 meeting. A closing date for the purchase will be set after that meeting, said Foundation board member Jim Wedemeyer.
The ultimate plan is to extend the 10-foot-wide paved trail all the way to the Merrill Area Recreation Complex. However, that portion of the project would likely require a lengthy process of obtaining easements from a number of private land owners, said River District Development Foundation chair Gene Bebel.
As a temporary alternative, the city has approved the use of Cottage Street and Grand Avenue as a connection to reach the MARC and Council Grounds State Park beyond. At a public information open house in August, there were no objections to the use of those streets as a temporary trail route.
The route along Cottage Street and Grand Avenue would link to the sidewalk that is already designed for pedestrian and bicycle traffic in the area of the MARC. Trail access already exists between the MARC and Council Grounds State Park.
While the railroad right of way purchase will include a section from West Main Street to the Lincoln Wood Products plant off Wisconsin Street, that part won’t be immediately developed. The trail will instead detour to Cottage Street at West Main Street.
Once the purchase is complete, preliminary design work for the trail will begin this winter, Wedemeyer noted. The final design will go out for construction bids next year.
Fundraising efforts will continue, as additional donations will be needed to pay for construction.
For the River District Development Foundation of Merrill, the dream of converting the abandoned rail bed into a recreational trail is coming closer to reality.
“Once the city has the title to the real estate, this is going to happen,” Wedemeyer said.