The 24.5-mile Kickapoo Rail Trail from Urbana to Danville likely won't be a big economic bonanza for Champaign and Vermilion counties, but it will boost tourism, make bike riding and long-distance running safer and help promote healthier lifestyles.
That's the opinion of local tourism officials, and those who already have long-distance bike trails in their communities.
Earlier this month the Champaign County Forest Preserve District announced it finally had completed the purchase of the abandoned railroad right of way and could begin planning construction of the long-discussed project. How long it will take to build is anyone's guess; that will be determined mostly by the success of grant-writing and private fundraising.
But the wait gives supporters time to plan.
St. Joseph Mayor B.J. Hackler is thinking about the need for new bathrooms at a village park near the trail, how the trail will be policed and its effect on local businesses.
Jayne DeLuce, CEO of the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is thinking about new ways to partner with Amtrak, and to promote Champaign County's recreational facilities.
Jeanie Cooke, executive director of the Vermilion County Convention and Visitors Bureau, is thinking about how the trail can be tied in to other parks in Danville and Vermilion County.
"There's a lot of research that talks about the rails to trails stimulating tourism, particularly with recreation-related spending," said DeLuce. "You always need another reason to visit this area. Frankly we fight the perception that because we don't have mountains or oceans we don't have any recreational opportunities. But we have fabulous forest preserves and parks, and we strive to tell people that.
"This will help. This area of tourism, particularly with biking and hiking, all of that is on the rise. So to be able to tap into that with this trail will be hugely significant."
One of her ideas is to link the trail with Amtrak service.
"People are using Amtrak with their hiking and biking and tourism opportunities. You can't necessarily ride the whole state but you can ride the train to a destination and use the outdoor resources there. I'm all over that," she said. "This kind of opportunity, we can work with the Amtrak stop here and have people ride to Danville."
Cooke wants to tie the trail, which initially will end at Kickapoo State Park, into Vermilion County's parks and eventually into a system of Danville bike paths.
"People who live here and people who come here are going to love it," she said. "It will bring the outdoor enthusiasts in and if we can tie it to our parks and our camping, that further enhances it. I do think it will bring people to the area.
"For me, it's also kind of the safety factor. We have a lot of people riding on roads in this county. This will be a chance to ride a distance and ride safely."
Hackler's thoughts are more practical.
"We've talked about putting in a new restroom at Kolb Park here, which is only about a half-block from the trail. We want to upgrade it already, so it meets the (Americans with Disabilities Act) and doing this, we could split the cost to another agency," he said.
As a mayor he also hears complaints and concerns.
"It will be an adjustment for people, but change is going to come. I think this will be a change for the better," he said. "It gets people off the country roads and it will be safer.
"I've talked to other mayors up and down the state about these bike trails. I asked them, Was there ever any vandalism or other problems? Yes, at first they might have problems and even now occasionally. But the mayors I've talked to don't have a problem."
Other people are concerned about maintenance, he said.
"It's going to be the same story. The good people are going to take care of it and are going to police it," he said. "I have a feeling that if there are problems, we'll get a pretty quick response from the sheriff's department. And we're going to keep our eyes on it too. You know we have a lot of police officers who live in St. Joe."
Tim Hyma is executive director of a Chamber of Commerce in Sparta, Wis., an area that calls itself "a rails-to-trails paradise." It's where the first railroad right of way trail opened about 50 years ago and it now has more than 100 miles of crushed limestone trails.
"We estimate that 60,000 people use the trails annually," he said. "The average rider spends about $120 a day, not all of it in Sparta but somewhere in the area, so it has a pretty significant impact."
It's about $7.5 million a year.
"The small businesses in the towns along the trail benefit," Hyma said. "The ice cream shops and restaurants. The bed and breakfasts are really attractive to those on the trail."
And it's not a seasonal business.
"Once the snow starts flying we have the snowmobilers on the trail. And cross-country skiers and snowshoers, too," Hyma added.
Farther south, Pam Brown is director of the Chamber of Commerce in Savanna, Ill., where the 60-mile Great River Trail along the Mississippi River was completed three years ago.
"It's had a good impact on our economy," she said. "The thing I like to do is come out on a weekend and look at all of the out of state license plates in our city parking lot."
That's what DeLuce likes to hear.
"The nice thing about the trails is that you can build additional amenities with them, whether it's bike shops or restaurants or even lodging," she said. "That's thinking big, but I think we have to look at it from a broader perspective of how it drives economic development."
For more information on the Kickapoo Rail Trail, including a list of frequently asked questions, go to: http://www.ccfpd.org/kickapoo_rail_trail/index.html.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Wednesdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.