Balloons Over Vermilion grant puts Kickapoo Rail Trail over top

Balloons Over Vermilion grant puts Kickapoo Rail Trail over top

DANVILLE — The long-awaited construction of the Kickapoo Rail Trail's Vermilion County leg can begin next year thanks to the first major donation from the Balloons Over Vermilion festival.

On Wednesday, Pat O'Shaughnessy, who co-chairs the hot-air balloon festival, announced that his board unanimously approved making a $25,000 grant to the Vermilion County Conservation District Foundation. The grant will provide the rest of the local matching funds needed to begin construction on the first phase of the Vermilion County side of the project.

"We are very excited to kick off Balloons Over Vermilion 2018 by giving back to another great project, which will continue to highlight the many wonderful things that Danville and Vermilion County have to offer families and kids of all ages and abilities," O'Shaughnessy said at a news conference held in the Environmental Educational Center at Kennekuk County Park.

He also announced two smaller grants of $2,500 — one to Bismarck-Henning Elementary School and one to Danville's Northeast Elementary School. Tia Peterson's fourth-grade class at Bismarck served as the student ambassadors for the inaugural Balloons Over Vermilion in 2016, and Jessica Alyea's third-grade class at Northeast took on that role for the second annual festival in July.

The Kickapoo Rail Trail is a 24.5-mile multi-purpose recreational trail that follows an old CSX rail line — stretching across woodland, prairie and wetlands — from Kickapoo State Park to Urbana. A 6.7-mile segment from Urbana to St. Joseph in Champaign County opened to pedestrians and bicyclists in August.

The Vermilion County Conservation District was awarded $2.1 million in federal funds to construct its portion of the trail nearly five years ago. District officials and nature and recreation enthusiasts had hoped a segment from the county fairgrounds to Oakwood would be open by now.

But the release of local matching funds stalled during the state's 2-year-long budget crisis.

Ken Konsis, the conservation district's executive director, said a committee of private individuals and others began raising donations to provide the local match.

The Balloons Over Vermilion grant "will actually put us over the top," he said excitedly. With that grant in hand, Phase I construction could begin next spring, he added.

The third annual Balloons Over Vermilion festival is already set for July 13-14, 2018, at the Vermilion Regional Airport.

O'Shaughnessy said organizers decided to bring a hot-air balloon event back to the area after a 15-year absence for the kids.

"We wanted a new generation of kids to fall in love with ballooning and help us support the event," he said.

Their other goal: To return some of the proceeds back to the area by way of community grants.

After two years, "we are financially sound," O'Shaughnessy said. And "we can realize that dream of being a community partner."

"This gift aligns perfectly with our 'It's for the kids' mission," he continued. "The trail promotes outdoor activity and stretches over a large portion of Vermilion County and many of its communities."

"We felt this project was a perfect fit for our first grant, and one which will add to a long list of family-centered attractions, making Vermilion County a destination site for years to come," added co-chairman Jim Anderson.

The former student ambassadors — now sixth-graders at Bismarck-Henning and fourth-graders at Northeast — were on hand to hear about their schools' grants.

"They helped us plan it, and grounded our thoughts in why we were doing it," O'Shaughnessy said, adding the first group helped design the Kids' Zone, and the next class helped tweak it and created posters that were used to promote the festival.

Peterson said her school will put the money toward its new STEM lab, converted from an old teacher's lounge. It's a designated room that will be used for science, math and art activities by all students.

"My kids just love doing these hands-on activities," she said. "It engages all types of learners and encourages collaboration."

Alyea said her school will use the money on STEM activities.

Northeast fourth-grader Brooklyn Warfield said she was excited to learn the hard work of her and her classmates, and the students ambassadors before them, contributed to the success of the balloon event and made it possible to start construction of the new multi-use path.

"I like riding my bike with my brother," Brooklyn said, adding she hopes to one day ride it on the new trail.