An update on the trail that will connect Great Lakes and small businesses

Connections are being made through a small town for a long trail.

When complete, the trail network known as Great Lake-to-Lake Route #1 will range from macro -- an attraction for biking tourists looking to pedal from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron -- to micro -- a means for small-town students to walk or bike to school.
 
The work that'll start late this summer in the city of Galesburg seems pretty micro. When finished in the spring of 2020, the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail will extend about 2.3 miles through the small town. There will then be 4.5 miles of construction to go to connect with Battle Creek's trail system.

How will the Great Lake-to-Lake benefit our area? 

"We're definitely excited about the potential," David Rachowicz,  director of Kalamazoo County Parks, says. "I think for all of the southern third of Michigan, where the majority of our population is, and where visitors come into our state, having that resource through communities will be a huge plus to attract people to use the trail." 

Rachowicz also looks at this project as the approach to the finish line of the vision of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail through the county, which will be -- including the Kal-Haven Trail from South Haven -- 75 miles of east-west trail, and 145 miles of regional trails overall.

Not everyone will want to "ride from point A to point B" on the Great Lake-to-Lake. "But you can live anywhere along that trail and get to whatever destination you'd like to achieve," Rachowicz says.

"It's really important on a macro-level, but it is also important on a micro-level where people live and work, and how they're actually going to be able to benefit from this resource." 

Bike tourists will be "spending a lot of money when they're on it.... And even just having a trail to the residents of the community, to be able to ride your bike downtown and go grab lunch or breakfast or an ice cream cone, it's really hard to get the full scale of it." 

In Galesburg, the trail will link the Galesburg-Augusta Primary School and G-A High School, on opposite sides of town, he says. There will be students, joggers, strollers -- "I think that's a whole other demographic of the use of the trail, that people look over because they're so focused on the biking part of it."

Macro

There are five Great Lake-to-Lake Trail routes. 

Routes #5 and #4 are in the U.P., mostly dirt trails from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior, fit for all-terrain vehicles and more-rugged mountain and fat-tire bikes. Route #3, Charlevoix to Alpena, is mostly complete, but some lengths of trail are unimproved and rough travel. Muskegon to Bay City, Route #2, has gaps where riders will have to stick to roads. 

When Executive Director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance Bob Wilson heard of the GL-T-L concept, he looked at Route #1 and realized it "had a potential to get done relatively quickly."

There will be some road-riding during their inaugural Route 1 group ride  Sept. 13, but 73 percent of the 275 miles will be trail of various surfaces -- paved, packed stone, or dirt, as of now.

"I've been involved in the trail movement since the early 1990s," Wilson says. He worked in the Lansing as an attorney on natural resources policy for the Republican Party, and worked on the Michigan Trailways Act of 1994.

"I spend a fair amount of time in the state legislature advocating for trail policy and funding. And the message that I like the leave with the legislature is that trails are not a political issue. We have Democrats, we have Republicans, senate members, house members, all advocating for trails because they're the number one recreational need of Michigan citizens." 

Galesburg mayor Lori West at the end of Mill Street. For the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail length through Galesburg, the gates will come down and the trail will meander through the trees along the Kalamazoo River.According to the DNR's most recent state-wide survey, "more people are calling out for non-motorized trails more than any other recreational activity in Michigan," Wilson says.

To make sure those in Lansing know the value of trails, last summer Wilson provided some hands-on -- or wheels-on -- experience for legislators inexperienced with biking.

Wilson took a group to ride on the southern portion of the Grand Rapids-Cadillac White Pine Trail. "Some of them were not real athletic, and were intimidated by the length of the ride we had planned, 25 miles," he says. So, Michigan Trails and Greenways provided electric bikes.

"And man, they were excited. We ended up riding all the way to Rockford and beyond," he said.

Like hungry bikers in the hot summer sun tend to do, they stopped in Rockford for an ice cream cone. The ice cream shop owner told them, Wilson says, "'Before this trail my store used to face towards the street. But I purposely redesigned my store because of all the traffic this trail is bringing to this community.'" 

The shop now has two storefronts, one facing the trail. Many other businesses in Rockford have also made an effort to cater to, and get the attention of, bikes, Wilson says. "That's a real strong signal of an economic impact and the community building that trails can bring."

Micro

Galesburg Mayor Lori West was excitedly talking about such things as a new distillery/brewery that’ll have a path directly connecting a bike trail, and smoothie stands catering to bike tourists -- things that the sleepy old rural burg has never dreamt of in its past centuries.

"If we build it, they will come. And we need to build it to be a healthy city," West says of the new trail. 

Population 2,009, established in 1839, Galesburg can be seen as the epitome of small-town Michigan.

West moved there about four years ago, and opened her antique shop Jive Junktion in the center of town. She became active in the community, ran for mayor, and took office Jan. 1.

"It's a wonderful little bedroom community, and it has so much potential," West says. "We need to get it healthy, and the trail is just a piece of that." 

Living in town, "I felt we were kind of in a time warp. When people said, 'it's Mayberry,' it kind of felt that way."

It's small-town and old-fashioned, but Galesburg has the same 21st-century problems as many other rural Michigan towns. They've worked with the county to shut down drug houses, and have been cleaning up blighted properties. "We don't have the squatters who are cooking meth like we used to," she says.

Galesburg has a Farmers Market every Tuesday; drive-in dining at The Front Porch and the hot-rods of GoGo Classic Cars are also bringing new life to the center of town, West says. 

New this year will be the Gull Lake Distilling Company. Ted Koch hopes to open the tasting room for his spirits, beer and wine early this summer. 

The trail will be going by the distillery’s back door. "Once we heard that there was going to be a bike path to go to Battle Creek, through Galesburg, through our property, we were extremely excited," Koch says. He hopes to rehab the building's old bowling alley, make the location a "family-fun kind of spot" with games, bikes, and bowling. 

Bike riders stopping for food, drink or just to check out a classic cruiser can also bring life to little Galesburg, West thinks. But change can be difficult for a community that hasn't changed much.

There was some resistance to the trail. Some residents worried about the type of people who might use the trail, they were concerned about trespassing and litter. Comments gravitated toward, "We're just going to have all their trash!" she says.

Cyclists, West says, "are not people who are going to be throwing their beer cans and cigarette wrappers in your yard. They have the disposable income to buy very expensive bikes and ride them great distances!" She laughs.

Great-Lake-to-Lake-Trails-Route-Overview: Great Lake-to-Lake Trail routes, Courtesy of Michigan Trails and Greenways AllianceLooking over the end of Mill Street where the trail will run, West points at garbage people tossed; an energy drink can, a yogurt container. 

"We've had a lot of problems here with vagrants and transients, just general not-so-great people sneaking through here, camping out over there (by the Kalamazoo River) all summer, doing bad things.... This is an opportunity to open this up for everybody to use, appropriately. And to even police a little bit more, along the river area."

The trail route will go along Battle Creek Street, down Mill, through the undeveloped wooded area along the Kalamazoo River and the park behind City Hall, along E. Michigan Avenue, north on McCollum, and along M-96 to G-A High.

Losing trees and parking spots were other concerns of residents. On Battle Creek Street the trail will be on-street for a portion of the south-east side, along a widened sidewalk elsewhere. Compromises had to be made, and "a few" trees will have to come down, she says.

"But I'm gonna tell you, those trees are old, they are not healthy, and they are a safety issue for the citizens." She's estimated that it would cost $1,800 to remove each tree, but that's going to be covered by Kalamazoo County Parks, not the city or residents.

Another "huge piece" she says, is the linkage of the two schools. The high school has had no sidewalk leading to it since it was built in 2003. West sees students walking along M-96 and the train tracks. "The trail is going to put a walk around there."

Galesburg is paying nothing for this? West lights up at the question. "Yes, sir!" The trail and any changes that have to be made because of its construction will not cost Galesburg a dime. 

Overall the project is "a positive thing for the city infrastructure, which has been neglected for years." 

West told citizens that research shows "when trails go through, it does increase the value of your real-estate. Young people, these millennials with kids, they want to walk out the door and have the trail right there! With their strollers, with their dogs, with their bikes, whatever."

Thinking of bike tourists or just locals on a Saturday ride rolling through, she points to a spot on Mill. "You need to put an Airstream right here, with a juice bar, smoothies, snacks.... This is going to be nothing but improvement."

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering everything from The Beastie Boys to invasive species. For more information see his website here.
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