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Fort Wayne Trails

Three grass roots trail groups join forces

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


If it’s there, people will use it…

That’s been the prevailing consensus in contemporary community development when it comes to trail networks for biking, running and walking — build them, maintain them, make them accessible and safe, and people will use them.

Last month, three different area non-profit groups — Aboite New Trails, the Greenway Consortium, and Northwest Allen Trails — merged into a new organization called Fort Wayne Trails. Each organization had been working on its own for years (the Greenway Consortium has been around since the 80s) to create trail networks in its respective area that they hoped would eventually link neighborhoods with schools, parks, and other major population centers. With these networks steadily expanding and connecting, they simply felt the time was right to consolidate their efforts.

“It was just the right time for the groups to combine,” says Lori Keys, Executive Director of Fort Wayne Trails. “In 2010 and this year, the trails really had their first coming together, where we’ll have 50 miles of interconnected bike trails from Southwest Fort Wayne all the way out to New Haven, so that was the first time we had all hooked up.”

Keys came to Fort Wayne in 2004 to work with Aboite New Trails; before that, she was with the Indianapolis Greenways system, and saw similarities between what was happening in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne. “Initially, there was a group of volunteers (in Indianapolis) who wanted to preserve green space along the rivers, and they started identifying corridors for pathways and also conservation,” Keys says. “As they branched out, they started looking at things like the Monon corridor, which was an old railway bed. Instead of just pathways, those trails became arteries that connected people with retail areas and places of work…”

“While I was there, we expanded the Monon trail to downtown, and it was amazing to see that,” she continues. “It started more development where the trail connected with downtown. Foundations started to take a look at that area, and eventually the Cultural Trail was created to help tie corridors into to downtown Indy.” An on-going project, Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail has received a lot of acclaim — Project for Public Spaces, an influential nonprofit planning and design organization focused on promoting public areas, recently listed it among five major success stories in the field, saying “The Cultural Trail is creating a powerful impetus for Indianapolis neighborhood groups to begin redefining their streets as public spaces that can satisfy a broad range of community needs. Indianapolis — a quintessential Midwestern car town — has decided that a street can and should be more than just a place to drive and store motor vehicles.”

But Keys explains that what she saw in Indianapolis was different from Fort Wayne in one key aspect — there, she says, it was more of a “top-down” effort. They could count on government grants every year, and early in the effort’s history, long before Keys got there, Eli Lily had donated $10 million to the parks department, something that helped get the project underway.

In Fort Wayne, things were more “grass roots.” Of course, local government encouraged the projects, but… “I tend to say things grew kind of organically, because it was literally neighbors who were making things happen,” Keys says.

Local government has certainly played a part in the efforts to create these trail networks in Allen County; for instance, in 2008, the City initiated a plan to do what it could to use some of its allotted transportation budget to improve bike routes and make certain streets and corridors more friendly to bicyclers. “We don’t receive a lot of direct government funding, but we do work closely with city and county staff, the County Highway Department and the Department of Public Works,” says Keys.

Mark Pope, the Chair of Fort Wayne Trails’ Executive Committee, says that city and county government have stepped in with moral support, some direction, and (most importantly) help with facilitating whatever processes are needed for construction. “The thing that started Fort Wayne Trails was direction from our local government,” Pope explains. “It was the commissioners of Allen County and the Mayor saying ‘guys, it’s time to come together’” To me, it’s maybe one of the best examples of private public partnership that Allen County has seen has seen.”

“Local government is critical to this entire thing,” Pope continues. “But local governments have limits as to what they can do, unfortunately. They need to devote their resources elsewhere. That’s where we come in with the grass roots efforts and the fund raising to pull this all together.”

And that serves as another reason why the different groups thought it was an opportune time to combine their efforts — with the economy the way it is these days, it didn’t make sense for there to be three similar not-for-profits possibly competing for resources. “It’s difficult to fund raise for any 501 (c) (3) in this climate,” Pope admits.

Fortunately, Fort Wayne Trails has a couple important things it can point to as it tries to raise money for upcoming projects (more on those in a moment). For one, the individual groups have proven very effective in… well, building trails. According to Keys, Aboite New Trails can count 20 miles of trails to its credit, including those that are currently under construction or planned to begin construction in 2011. Among that number — a section of the Towpath Trail, due to be finished by the end of the summer, will finally connect the southwest trail network with the city. “There’s a section under construction between Lutheran Hospital’s campus on Jefferson and the city’s portion just north of Engle road,” says Lori Keys. “It’s 1.5 miles long, and it’ll tie together 20 miles of trails out in southwest Fort Wayne, with another 30 miles of the Rivergreenway network. It’ll be the first time we can cross over the Eagle Marsh wetlands. Anyone can ride in for a Tincaps game.”

Secondly, it’s an idea whose time has come, as they say. Actually, it’s been here for quite a while. The numerous economic, social, and environmental benefits of having an inter-connected trail system are widely and vocally touted by pretty much anyone studying current community revitalization issues. “Trails aren’t ‘just’ for running around on,” says Mark Pope. “Trails really serve a multitude of purposes. Certainly it’s a health initiative — and lord knows, given some of the wayward publicity Fort Wayne has had in the past, we could use that. But we’ve also found there’s a good economic value to trail systems. Studies have found that home values are higher if there’s access to a trail system.”

“It’s really an economic development tool,” says Lori Keys. “There’s a lot of talk of setting the table for private investments to come in and the trails and biking and walking are a big part of that, so we’re trying to look at how we tie in to a lot of other initiatives in the community, like arts and culture destinations or the rivers and parks, everything that fits into that realm of community improvement.”

And then, of course, there’s your own economic well-being to think of. We might be looking at another summer of gas prices maybe — maybe — hovering a little closer than comfortable to the $4/gallon mark. “We’re going to start to have to think about other ways to take these two, three mile trips, and I think the trails can filter right into that, too,” Mark Pope says.

While Fort Wayne Trails is still organizing, there are five projects in the immediate pipeline that Keys says already have some funding dedicated towards them.

In the northwest region, there’s the Pufferbelly Trail — an old railroad bed — that will link downtown, the zoo, and Glenbrook Square. And hopefully, it’ll just keep going… all the way up north to Pokagen State Park and south to Ouabache in Bluffton. “Overall, this is a state-wide visionary trail with some major opportunities in Fort Wayne and Allen County,” Keys says.

Northeast, there’s another section that will link Johnny Appleseed Park to Shoaff Park. “It goes through the newly completed section that links with IPFW,” says Keys. “It really links with a lot of isolated areas, and will funnel people into the IPFW and Ivy Tech campuses from the northeast.”

Southeast, there’s the six mile creek trail, which will tie in at Southtown Center at Tillman park, and loop around to New Haven to create a 26 mile loop in the River Greenway

Southwest, there’s another section of the Covington Trail that is planned within the next year that will connect with West Hamilton road.

And directly west of downtown, the Cougar Trail will link from Sweeney Park to the University of Saint Francis. “It’s really just a short jaunt — just a little under a mile — but to link to that campus and that area of Spring and Sherman… the trail has a lot of potential for growth.”

Some day, you might be able to, say, hop on your bike at a certain point and do a complete loop around the county, back to where you started, without ever really leaving the trail. That’s the idea, anyway. Keys says she’s seen tremendous momentum in the last several years regarding Aboite New Trails, and is hopeful that it will continue with Fort Wayne Trails. “We’ve looked at what other cities have done quite a bit, but we’ve really found that we’re pretty cutting edge with how much has happened in Fort Wayne just in the last five or six years. The community has really gotten behind this idea.”

Here’s hoping they continue to do so.

As of this writing, the Fort Wayne Trails is not quite up yet — fortwaynetrails.org is the address; right now, this will take you to the Greenway Consortium Site, but the “real” Fort Wayne Trails site will be up soon.

In the meantime, you can keep current on Facebook (facebook.com/FortWayneTrails).

And… you can also visit aboitenewtrails.com or northwestallentrails.org for more information.

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