A conduit to tourism and downtown development: The Bridge to Bay Trail receives major funding push

It began to take shape in the mid-1990s, a miles-long paved trail that would connect the parks along the St. Clair County shoreline like "a string of pearls."

More than two decades and 26 miles of completed pathways later and the Bridge to Bay Trail is nearly halfway to its goal: 54 miles of uninterrupted paved trails from Lakeport State Park to New Baltimore.

And while development of the trail has had its stops and starts over the years, the 2018 formation of the Regional Trails Board, a coalition of regional stakeholders, has put the project back into high gear.

On Monday, July 20, members of the Regional Trails Board announced more than $1.9 million in grants from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation that will significantly help complete Phase One of finishing the Bridge to Bay Trail.

"The Bridge to Bay Trail is really important as an economic boost for the Thumb Coast region. It’s going to be a huge boost for tourism," says Sheri Faust, chair of the Regional Trails Board and president of the Friends of the St. Clair River.

"After years of planning, now we’re moving into the construction phase. People will begin to see real tangible changes by next summer."

The Wilson Foundation grant helps members of the board – a group that includes the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, St. Clair County Parks & Recreation, St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission, Friends of the St. Clair River, and municipalities connected to the trail – in their search for additional funding. A significant portion of that grant, $1.5 million, makes up a third of the fundraising goal for Phase One.

"Parks and trails add greatly to the quality of life in a community," J.J. Tighe, director of the Parks & Trails Initiative for the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, says in a statement.

"We are impressed with the collaborative and comprehensive model which has been put together up in the Thumb Coast and believe their long-term vision and plans warrant such a large early commitment from our Foundation."

As part of the grant, Lighthouse Park and trailhead will receive $275,000 in renovations. Another $147,500 is reserved for existing trail maintenance, construction of which will begin this summer.

"It’s often harder to find money for trail maintenance than it can be for building new trails," Faust says.

Still, it’s the bulk of the grant, the $1.5 million going toward the construction of new trails, that stokes the imagination.

Phase One includes 13 projects in Port Huron, Marysville, and St. Clair. The projects selected for Phase One are the "most ready to go," says Faust.

The majority of these projects will connect existing segments of trail currently separated by significant gaps and pave other stretches that are still gravel.

An example of the type of pedestrian bridge that will cross the Black River CanalPerhaps the biggest project of Phase One is the development of a trail that runs the length of the Black River Canal and the construction of a pedestrian bridge that traverses it, joining the campuses of Port Huron Northern and Holland Woods Middle School.

"That’s a really exciting part of this phase," Randy Maiers, president & CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, says in a statement.

“A new trail running along the length of the canal would connect hundreds of families to the parks and shoreline along Lake Huron."

It’s believed that completing the 54-mile Bridge to Bay Trail would be a boon for tourism and economic development in the region. The three phases of construction are expected to take six to eight years to complete at a cost of approximately $13 million in total.

While it’s taken some time to finish the trail, the formation of the Regional Trail Board appears to have reinvigorated stakeholders.

And as local waterfront communities have enjoyed increased development of their downtowns in recent years, the renewed push to complete the trail comes with a new focus to connect the Bridge to Bay Trail to our downtowns, something that the original plan from two decades ago lacked.

"We know that the longer the trail, the more tourism that it attracts. We also know that the shorter segments attract more families. Completing the Bridge to Bay Trail will be great for all users and all abilities. And it will be great for our local communities and tourism," Faust says.

"Since the trail was first designed, there has been a lot of development along the waterfront. This trail will be the conduit and tangible connection to complete the picture."

Interested in getting involved in the Bridge to Bay Trail? Sheri Faust encourages reaching out to info@scriver.org for more information.

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