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Viewpoint: Rock Island Trail's impact on communities

by Shawn Henessey and Kim Henderson | December 29, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. | Updated March 20, 2018 at 6:18 p.m.

The first 47 miles of the Rock Island Trail between Pleasant Hill and Windsor opened in December 2016. After years of planning and coordination, and two years of rail and tie salvage, another 144 miles of corridor across Missouri is being donated by Ameren. This significant gift is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Missouri and our nationally recognized Missouri State Parks system. We commend them for analyzing its likely costs/benefits and the creative models other park systems have used to develop, operate and maintain similar trails in a tight budgetary environment.

As the city administrators of Pleasant Hill and Windsor, we know the impact the trail makes on communities. The Rock Island Railroad was the lifeblood of our towns beginning in the early 1900s. It created many towns that began as water stops for steam engines every 10 miles. The railroad moved massive numbers of people and goods. Businesses boomed and our communities prospered.

About 30 years ago demand for rail service declined and our trains finally stopped. Communities suffered and we were suddenly more remote. The unused rail line became an eyesore running through the middle of 24 towns.

That changed a year ago. Large numbers of enthusiastic hikers, bikers and equestrians visit our small towns from other states and nations. Our communities have a new park, and our retailers have a steady stream of new customers. Trail tourists are vigorous adults and seniors who are hungry, thirsty, and need a place to stay overnight. They are on vacation and spend money. The impact on our communities is significant and totally positive.

The Rock Island added 47 miles to the internationally known 240-mile Katy Trail and connected St. Louis to Kansas City. Nearby, Jackson County has purchased another 17.7 miles of corridor from Lee's Summit past the Truman Sports Complex at I-70. Their trail is to open in 2019, with plans for a future commuter line.

Pleasant Hill is now largely a bedroom community on the southeast edge of KC. The trailhead is near our historic downtown and has easy access. Our bike shop/coffee shop is pleased with the new business, as are nearby restaurants and stores. New bakeries and coffee shops have opened and we expect to see more amenities soon. Our city lake north of town offers camping and we plan to add another campground near the trailhead. We expect more lodging to be developed to fill the need that is now being served by hotels and B&Bs in nearby communities. Further growth downtown is likely when we have overnight tourists wanting dinner, breakfast and night life activities.

The Katy Trail has been good for Windsor the last 26 years. We are 16 miles from its terminus at Clinton. Adding the Rock Islandcreated a new flood of tourists and made Windsor an overnight destination. Farrington City Park revenues grew 400 percent this year, so we added more campsites. The Windsor Crossroads Motel is often full, as are the three Kim's Cabins units. A fourth cabin is being considered. Fitzgerel's Nightly Rentals opened June 30 and was full most weekends and many week nights. Some weeknights there are no rooms available in Windsor. An historic property being restored will open as a B&B in March 2018. Unique restaurants and coffee shops have opened, as has The Katy/Rock Escape Rooms.

The City of Belle has already secured funding to build more than a mile of trail when Missouri State Parks approves acceptance of the 144-mile corridor. Belle plans to renovate its former MFA as a welcome center with wraparound decking. Owensville, Versailles and Eldon want to partner on maintenance and development of the three miles within each of their city limits.

New businesses with trail-related names are springing up: Rock Island Village in Eldon, Rock Island Marketplace in Owensville, RockIsland Trading Post in Rosebud, Rock Island Trail Retreat in Gerald, and Rock Island Station in Beaufort.

The Katy Trail provides a 20:1 return on investment, but the economic benefits go to businesses, their employees and communities, not as direct income to Missouri State Parks. Their small increase in revenue will be from increased sales tax at 1/20 of 1 percent. The answer is to be more creative about partnerships with communities, individuals and philanthropists. Accepting the corridor is the first, necessary step, with further development happening as fast as funding allows.

As city administrators for the two largest towns on the Rock Island Trail, we strongly encourage acceptance of Ameren's valuable gift of the next 144 miles of corridor. We want 20 more towns to get the many benefits of the trail that we already have. The 240-mile Katy and 191-mile Rock Island trails will form a world-class loop, attracting even more tourists from across our nation and world.

Shawn Henessey is the city administrator for Pleasant Hill and Kim Henderson is the city administrator for Windsor.

Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. (MoRIT) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

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