The Merrill Common Council last Tuesday approved the purchase of abandoned railroad right of way for the construction of a hiking and biking trail.
‘This is a very big step for us,” said Gene Bebel, president of the River District Development Foundation of Merrill.
The foundation has been working for several months to raise funds and hammer out a deal with Canadian National Railroad for purchase of approximately 1.5 miles of railroad right of way. The foundation has raised the $137,500 to purchase the property, but needed the city’s involvement to close the deal.
“We as a foundation cannot own property,” Bebel said. “The title will be in the city’s name and we will continue to provide funding for development and construction of the trail.”
The foundation will provide the funding to the city to purchase the land. The city has applied for a Stewardship Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to pay half of the acquisition costs. The city’s application is at the top of the list for funding, Bebel noted.
Closure of the purchase from Canadian National is expected by the end of the month. Once the property is in the city’s hands, fund raising will continue and preparations for construction will begin.
A development committee made up of representatives from the city and the foundation will develop the procedure for construction.
“We’ll have to keep running the capital campaign to generate funding for construction in the spring,” Bebel said.
Bebel noted the strong support the project has already received from bikers, hikers and the community. The foundation is hoping, now that the trail is one step closer to reality, others will contribute to the project.
The River Bend Trail would run from downtown Merrill, along the abandoned rail bed to State Street. The ultimate plan is to extend the 10-foot-wide paved trail from downtown Merrill all the way to the Merrill Area Recreation Complex. However, the western portion of the project would likely require a lengthy process of obtaining easements from a number of private land owners.
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. 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.