River District Development Foundation of Merrill and the River Bend Trail: The Future is Now
Community Resource Development Educator, University of Wisconsin Extension, Lincoln County
It has been my privilege to conduct ongoing River District Development Foundation (RDDF) and River Bend Trail planning sessions over the last nearly four years. During that time, the Foundation became a highly functional organization. Great leadership, devoted partners such as the City of Merrill, corporate donors like Church Mutual, grants provided by foundations like the Merrill Area Community Foundation and Greenheck, individual and business donors too numerous to mention here, dedicated board and advisory group members, volunteers, and a willingness to set and achieve lofty goals make the Foundation’s River Bend Trail project a prime example of how community development should be done.
In addition to building a good portion of the trail (1.5 miles), other major accomplishments of the group this year include:
• Purchasing property from Wisconsin Public Service and the D&L Group to begin building the trail east of the Center Avenue bridge
• Preparing the D&L (Anson Gilkey) site for redevelopment
• Creating several access points to the existing trail
• City of Merrill designated the trail area as a linear park (strong support of the city in general)
• Initiating design of the primary trailhead area at the end of Park Street (pavilion to be reconstructed by Agra and other development supported by the Merrill Rotary Club)
• Collaborating with the city to obtain a grant that will help fund development of several areas along the proposed trail east of the Center Avenue bridge • Installing signage along the trail
• Remaining solvent
• Creating a River Bend Trail website and updating the trail brochure
• Holding a very successful grand opening for the newly paved portion of the trail
• Beginning the installation of amenities such as picnic tables, trees, benches, and lights along the trail
• Facilitating the development of a side/rustic trail completed by volunteers coordinated by Thrivent Financial
• Having over 150 citizens take part in trail activities
• Cultivating widespread community support for trail development
• Helping with the Riverside Athletic Club United Way “Kolor Run” and other events
• Receiving the Merrill Chamber award for being the “Nonprofit of the Year”
Work completed primarily at the committee level is an important factor in the group’s success. Early in the trail project, many initiatives were led by devoted board members at the board level. This at times delayed progress because important decisions had to wait until the once a month board meeting. Now, committee chairs and members develop, with my assistance, specific action plans meant to achieve committee goals. Committees meet as frequently as needed, and many important decisions are made by them without having to go to the entire board. Smaller groups of well-intentioned people are often more nimble and responsive than larger groups that perhaps can on occasion over analyze situations.
Although goals are primarily chosen at the committee level, they adhere to the RDDF’s long-term vision of a broad expanse of riverfront that includes many attractive gathering places. The trail going west from the bridge, over a third complete, is already serving as a hub of community activity.
Despite the tremendous success of these committees to date, they still need your help! We now have a significant portion of a beautiful trail to utilize, but much more work is planned. One danger of a strong committee structure (small working groups) is that often people become burned out, especially on an extremely involved and complex project such as building a lengthy asphalt trail through scenic areas.
Money has to be raised. The city was paid for a small portion of the trail and does what it can financially, but does not have the wherewithal to provide a great deal of money for trail development. The vast majority of trail revenue is being raised from grants and donations by the Foundation. The Foundation is paying for the vast majority of trail expenses. Most of the money that was initially raised to build a significant portion of the trail and to begin placing amenities on it is now gone.
The Capital Campaign and Friends/Membership Committees are now hard at work writing more grant proposals and cultivating additional donations. Land and easements have to be acquired and engineered for trail development. The Real Estate and Construction committees are planning additional trail segments to hopefully be completed in 2016. Events and press releases to promote the completed portion of the trail and to convey what its additional segments are going to look like are needed now more than ever. The Marketing and Promotions Committee is always looking for volunteers to help with these events and tasks.
Successful community development projects, if they are to continue over several years, must have a strong, dedicated volunteer base. New volunteers always reinvigorate the effort with fresh, creative ideas. The mixture of new blood with experienced people who have been with the project for a while makes for an even more dynamic organization ready to take on greater challenges.
If you wish to help the RDDF vision come true, please contact Foundation President Gene Bebel (email@example.com), Sarah Williams (firstname.lastname@example.org), or me at Arthur.email@example.com).