Andrea LaFontaine remembers her surprise in 2011 when she started seeing groups of cyclists coming into Ken’s Country Kitchen in Richmond, where she worked at the time.

“Keep in mind, Richmond is kind of a rural town. So you’re like, ‘Where are these people in their spandex riding outfits coming from?'” LaFontaine says. “When I would ask them, they’d be like, ‘We’re coming from Shelby Township,’ or often further than that. I’d be like, ‘Wait a minute. You rode your bike from Shelby Township to come get breakfast at our restaurant?’ And they did.”

The catalyst for that influx of fitness-minded clientele was the completion of the Macomb Orchard Trail, the 24-mile hike and bike trail running from Richmond to Shelby Township. It’s a prime example of the kind of economic development that communities throughout Southeast Michigan are hoping to achieve by developing their trail systems. And while it’s yet unknown what kind of effect the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact will have on funding for trail projects, their ability to drive development could prove a valuable resource for local municipalities looking to kickstart the economy.

In the present, trails have proven invaluable to people looking to get outside and shake the dust off from Michigan’s stay-at-home orders. Outdoor activities like walking, jogging, and biking remain unaffected by efforts taken to flatten the COVID-19 curve, so long as people respect social distancing conventions and stay six feet from one another.

A 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association found that Michigan’s outdoor recreation economy generates 232,000 jobs and $26.6 billion in consumer spending. LaFontaine notes that trail development not only benefits established businesses like Ken’s Country Kitchen, but also prompts the establishment of new businesses–like the aptly named Trail’s Edge Cafe, which opened last year at the end of the Michigan Air Line Trail in Wixom.

Here’s a look at how communities across Southeast Michigan–from St. Clair County to the Detroit suburbs to the city of Detroit–are planning to expand and connect their trails to draw new visitors, businesses, and residents.

The Bridge to Bay TrailCompleting the Bridge to Bay

The plan for St. Clair County’s Bridge to Bay Trail sounds like a cyclist or hiker’s dream: a 54-mile trail stretching along almost the entirety of the county’s eastern and southern waterfront, running from Lakeport State Park to New Baltimore. But David Struck, planning director for the St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission, says the trail currently has two key shortcomings: only 26 miles have been completed, and in many places the trail isn’t well connected to the county’s lakefront downtowns.

Struck says that’s largely because the trail was originally planned in the early to mid-’90s, “kind of a different time” for economic development.

“A lot of it was looking at the path of least resistance, so you might have trails that were bypassing downtowns, bypassing other amenities,” Struck says. ” … In the last five years, we’ve seen so much investment in our traditional downtowns, particularly along our St. Clair River coastline, where we’ve seen theaters and restaurants and boutique hotels sprout up. So we really wanted to make sure our trail network is taking people into our downtowns and going through these areas that have these assets.”

Over the past four years, numerous county institutions including the Metropolitan Planning Commission, the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, and St. Clair County Parks and Recreation have come together to complete the trail with the goal of advancing economic development. By 2018, Community Foundation president Randy Maiers says the partners had agreed that “we wanted that to be our region’s next major initiative.” That resulted in the foundation commissioning a 2019 study on the economic impact of expanding its trail systems. Maiers says the foundation didn’t hire the consultancy that prepared the study “to tell us everything was great.”

“We wanted to hear the truth,” he says.

Maiers says that resulted in a few “eye-openers” for community stakeholders. One was the importance of having a lengthy, uninterrupted “main artery” of trail that would attract not just local residents but out-of-towners–and the many businesses that arise to cater to them. Pennsylvania’s 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage Trail is a good example.

“If we had proceeded without that understanding, I think we would have focused too much on smaller trail segments for local residents,” Maiers says. “The local segments are great and we certainly are addressing those, but we’re building those as part of the framework of a major north-south artery.”

Last year the Metropolitan Planning Commission released its first trails plan update since 2008, creating a master framework for completing the remaining half of the Bridge to Bay Trail and better connecting it to the county’s downtowns. Stakeholders have also created the 13-member St. Clair County Trails Governing Board, with Friends of the St. Clair River president Sheri Faust as its chair.

The next big piece of the puzzle is to find funding. Maiers estimates the project will take six years at a price of $12 million to $13 million. And while many agree that it’s too early to tell the effects COVID-19 will have on state and federal funding for these programs, the pandemic has further demonstrated the importance of these trails.

“We’ve seen an increase in families engaging with trails more than ever before. Throughout the month of April, we conducted an informal survey and found that with people driving less, more are walking and biking. Coincidentally, people are learning that places aren’t as far away as they thought and now realize they can bike or walk easily. I hope these are new lifestyle habits that remain after stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and normal activities resume,” Faust says.

“While government and corporate funding could be paused for a while, we know users of a resource can be its biggest advocates. So while trail use has increased, we may come out on the other side of this with more individuals ready and willing to support trail development.”

Filling the gaps in Metro Detroit

The Bridge to Bay Trail is already set to cross into Macomb County in New Baltimore. But if numerous regional stakeholders have their way, cyclists and hikers will eventually be able to connect from the Bridge to Bay Trail to the Macomb Orchard Trail–and even further westward to cross the entire state. The St. Clair County trails plan envisions a new trail covering the approximately 16 miles from the Bridge to Bay in Marysville to the Macomb Orchard Trail’s eastern terminus in Richmond.

“To be able to go potentially from Romeo to Richmond all the way to the shoreline of the St. Clair River … it just gives you a lot more options,” Struck says. “Everybody wants to see that gap filled.”

Amanda Minaudo, senior planner with the Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development, says there’s “no set timeline” to fill the gap, but the county meets regularly with Richmond and St. Clair County officials to develop a plan for it.

“Macomb County always strives to be a great regional partner,” Minaudo says via email. “As such, we do whatever we can to continue to connect our trails to other regional assets. It increases tourism to our trail communities, and increases health, fitness, and overall quality of life for our residents.”

Bridging the gap would also be an important step forward in completing the Great Lake-to-Lake Trail Route No. 1, a project of the nonprofit Michigan Greenways and Trails Alliance (MGTA), which would run from South Haven to Port Huron. As MGTA’s executive director, LaFontaine now works to bring communities together to advance the kind of trail-based economic development she once saw at Ken’s Country Kitchen. She says Route No. 1 is currently about 70 to 71 percent complete, with the Richmond-to-Marysville stretch representing one of the largest gaps.

Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, MGTA is also working to fill gaps in Pontiac, between the Macomb Orchard and Clinton River trails, and in southwestern Oakland County, between the Huron Valley and West Bloomfield trails. LaFontaine says it’s important for those trail segments to be an integral part of the communities they pass through.

“Some people will look at a map and choose to draw a trail around existing infrastructure,” she says. “We believe in the economic benefits of trails, so we think it should go by businesses and work its way through the town and give riders the opportunity to stop in at these local places and spend their money or stay overnight.”

Elsewhere in Metro Detroit, a group of stakeholders is working to fill similar gaps in local trails and connect them to the Iron Belle Trail, the massive planned trail running from Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood in the Western Upper Peninsula. In June, a group of local government agencies and nonprofits received a $1.9 million grant from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) to complete 3.5 miles’ worth of gaps in Downriver trails.

Elizabeth Park in Trenton“In some cases communities have just like a tenth of a mile where they don’t have any existing trail,” says Mary Bohling, co-chair of Downriver Linked Greenways, one of the grant recipients. “When you put it all together it’s three and a half miles, but separately it’s a quarter of a mile here, a tenth of a mile there.”

However, Bohling describes the project as a crucial next step in creating a destination trail that will draw more visitors to Metro Detroit (and Michigan in general). She says Metro Detroit has few localized studies on the economic benefits of trails, but the conclusions local stakeholders can draw from examples in other areas are inarguable.

“Think of the Appalachian Trail and the visitation that gets every year,” she says. “We could have that here, but we have to make sure that our gaps are filled.”

Beyond dollars spent

In Detroit, where the Iron Belle Trail originates, stakeholders are also well aware of the benefits of continuing to fill those gaps.

“I think there’s a great opportunity to connect beyond the borders,” says Todd Scott, executive director of the Detroit Greenways Coalition, which has worked with MDNR to develop the trail. “I think it’s a great opportunity to start getting some of the suburbs to start thinking about how to be more bike-friendly and more walkable. I don’t think they’re used to looking to Detroit as a leader in this field, so I think that’s going to be interesting moving forward.”

Scott points to the Detroit RiverWalk (which forms part of the Iron Belle Trail) and the Dequindre Cut as two prime examples of Detroit’s leadership in creating trails that have improved quality of life for city residents and become a draw for visitors. He also cites the city’s protected bike lanes as a good example of “progressive” non-motorized design that should be modeled both in suburbs and elsewhere in the city.

However, Scott thinks that measuring the traditional economic benefits of these developments can be challenging. A 2013 study commissioned by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy estimated that 3 million visitors spend $16.7 million along the riverfront annually. While the Riverwalk is noted as a crucial factor in the riverfront’s appeal, it’s difficult to track how much of that impact is directly attributable to the trail. And in the case of the Dequindre Cut, Scott notes that the abandoned buildings still flanking the trail don’t show the sort of trail-related developments one might expect.

Scott thinks design elements of forthcoming Detroit projects including the Joe Louis Greenway and Joseph Campau Greenway will make it easier for users to access neighboring businesses, creating more traditional economic development. But he also suggests measuring the positive benefits of Detroit’s trails by more intangible, but no less important, metrics.

For example, Scott notes that trails have significant positive impacts on residents’ physical and mental health. It’s an idea made all the more important when considering the negative effects of isolation by-way-of social distancing. Just because coronavirus-related statewide shutdowns have limited where people can and cannot go, those orders don’t extend to being outdoors. Bike rides and trailways have become treasured alternatives to staying indoors.

“A large percentage of the folks in the bike clubs I ride with have improved their health notably from doing bike rides,” he says. “We have folks who’ve lost 80 pounds in a year. We have a person who was on high blood pressure medicine and diabetes medicine who’s on neither anymore.”

Scott says trails have also positively improved Detroit’s branding over the past decade.

“I think trails and biking have helped to change that, when people can get out on a bike and see what Detroit is really like versus what they’ve been told it’s like,” he says.

As Southeast Michigan continues developing both local trails and building larger regional connections between them, Scott says it’s worth measuring those projects’ success in something more than just the number of visitors and the dollars they spend.

“I think we just need to have faith that this is the right thing to do and that there will be economic benefits and that they’re worthwhile,” he says.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.

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