Trail gains traction
The River District Development Foundation of Merrill held a capital campaign kick-off event for the new River Bend Trail development Saturday in downtown Merrill.
The River District Development Foundation and the City of Merrill are working together through a Resolution of Support to acquire an abandoned Canadian National rail-bed and obtain easements for a 2.5 mile long paved, non-motorized trail along the Wisconsin River from downtown Merrill, westward to Council Grounds State Park. The capital campaigns goal is to raise $1 million through private donations and grants so there will be no impact to current or future taxpayers. The funds will pay for acquisition, construction and maintenance of the trail.
Foundation chair Gene Bebel pointed out that the river and the railroad played vital roles in the development of the Merrill community.
“We needed the river to survive and we needed the rail to thrive,” he said. “We hope it will be a part of our future as well.”
Capital campaign co-chair Mike Willman noted that other communities located on recreational trails see great economic benefits from tourism. Linking the River Bend Trail to Council Grounds State Park will provide Merrill with new opportunities to draw in the park’s 200,000 annual visitors.
“We have a once in a millennium opportunity to develop the abandoned railroad corridor and make it into a premier non-motorized trail,” Willman said.
David Hayes, capital campaign co-chair, said the trail will be an aesthetic, economic and exercise resource for the community, blending Merrill’s history and the beauty of the river.
Bebel announced that negotiations with Canadian National have begun.
“Canadian National’s representative has been very open and very encouraging to us,” Bebel said. “We hope to very quickly obtain an agreement with Canadian National and the city to get this process moving.”
Merrill City Administrator David Johnson urged citizens to support the project.
“We can take back our river and use it for exercise and to benefit the businesses along the river,” he said. “This trail can do something for the community.”
Trina Johnson, downtown business owner and a leader of Discover Downtown Merrill, said she is excited about the project and the possibilities it would bring.
“The River Bend Trail I feel will really be an asset to the community to encourage a healthier community both physically and economically.”
Trina said Discover Downtown Merrill is already working on its first fundraiser to support the trail. “We’re excited about being involved in the project,” she said.
Kelly Zagrzebski of Wisconsin Public Service presented a $10,000 donation from the WPS Foundation. The trail head would be located on the WPS hydro property downtown. “Wisconsin Public Service is really looking forward to this partnership,” Zagrzebski said.
Bebel said the River District Development Foundation is hoping to raise the $1 million within 18 months. With the involvement of the city, the foundation has applied for a $50,000 Stewardship grant from the DNR. To get the $50,000, the foundation will have to first raise that amount.
“That’s an amount we feel we can match pretty quickly,” Bebel said.
Another grant from the Department of Transportation would match 80% of the Stewardship funds.
Bebel said the foundation is hopeful that the River Bend Trail can realize the same fundraising success as previous community supported projects such as the library and the museum.
“We feel we can do the same here,” he said.
The foundation has also kicked off an essay contest for students to engage their interest and perception of what a trail can do for the community. The winning essay entry will receive a brand new mountain bike donated by Wal-Mart.
Organizers see the trail as the first step in linking Merrill to its neighbors through the Wisconsin State Trail Network. The hope is that people from Tomahawk and Wausau will one day be able to come to Merrill by trail.
The planning of the trail began in 2011 when the foundation organized and received a $10,000 planning grant from the Merrill Community Foundation and a technical assistance planning grant from the National Park Service.
To learn more about the capital campaign or to make a tax-deductible donation visit their website at www.riverdistrictfoundationofmerrill.com for details. For more information on this project or to find out other ways you can help with the trail development contact Debbe Kinsey at the Merrill Chamber of Commerce Foundation at 715-536-9474.