Progress being made on Camp Ripley trail

From-the-mayors-deskLittle Falls is on the brink of developing one of the largest tourism boosts in our history, with the possibility of generating an additional $1 million into our economy each year. In 2008, former Rep. Al Doty contacted me to discuss connecting the Paul Bunyan Trail to the Soo Line trail, which is a missing 32-mile link.

This link, now known as the Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail (CRVST), is a very important link between six other existing bike trails. When the CRVST is completed it will become part of the longest, continuous paved off-road bike trail in the world, linking many Minnesota communities together.

The resulting trail will be a one-of-a-kind system for non-motorized users. A person will be able to go from Fergus Falls to Bemidji or St. Joseph to Cass Lake, for example. Motorized users will also enjoy an enhanced and simplified connection through Central Minnesota.

All will have to go through Little Falls, the hub city of this network, which means all of Central Minnesota will benefit by greatly enhancing the ability to draw tourism.

With $3.2 billion spent annually by trail users in Minnesota, a portion of that will come to our area. Having more than 400 miles of continuous, off-road bike trails we inevitably draw tourists from all over the world.

These trails will not only lure tourists, but are also beneficial to the quality of life for our residents. During warm weather months in Minnesota, nearly 1.5 million cyclists, inline skaters and walkers use our nationally-recognized trails. The long-term goal for CRVST is to make the trail usable year round by encircling Camp Ripley and linking many equestrian, ATV and snowmobile trails together.

There’s no doubt the CRVST will have a huge impact on our region. It will do wonders to help our existing base of tourist attractions and businesses by bringing people into our downtowns, but it will also attract other businesses to locate here.

The CRVST committee, established in 2008 and chaired by Bob Reinitz, has enlisted the support of all counties and cities within the area in an attempt to lobby the federal government as well as the state Legislature for support.

In 2010, the Minnesota State Legislature deemed the CRVST a state trail and in 2012 a corridor study was completed.

A CRVST master plan is complete and is on the DNR website at plans/trails/campripleyvet erans.html.

We are currently in discussions with the DNR on which segments we would like to complete first and when work could begin.

The DNR recently received a grant for engineering services for the CRVST, and we are working hard to be included in the 2014 state bonding bill.

We have developed a CRVST website and are developing a marketing plan to promote the trail to area residents and tourists.

A collaboration of Morrison County Public Health, the Great River Arts Association, Healthy Communities Collaborative, Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), Little Falls Police Department (LFPD), business owners, Little Falls schools and the city, is pulling together everyone’s time and resources to work on projects that will develop and enhance Little Falls and the CRVST.

A few projects that tie into the CRVST and its impact include:

• Themed bike racks, created by a local artist, placed in locations around Little Falls. Many businesses are purchasing their own racks to participate, while cities around the county are applying for grants. Old racks are being refurbished by area schools for community use. We hope to expand the program through grants and donations.

• We are implementing our first Open Streets event June 15, 2014, a family event centered on health, fitness and community.

• New downtown lighting is being implemented to create a welcoming atmosphere for local citizens and tourists.

• We are working with Royalton, Randall, Pierz and Upsala, who are developing links to the trail route.

• Historic bike tours are being offered by the CVB.

• We have applied for a Bike Friendly Community status through Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.

To meet their qualifications, area law enforcement has taken courses in bicycle safety training and developed a Bicycle Education Program.

• The LFPD received a grant through Public Health to purchase a bike trailer and bicycles to offer bicycle training throughout Morrison County. The LFPD has been putting on bike rodeos in many Morrison County communities.

• The Little Falls CVB has implemented a Bicycle Helmet Program where children receive a helmet if they take the bicycle training classes. Several local businesses purchased the helmets and donated them to the program; grants were also obtained.

• Bicycle lanes are in place on First Street as well as a walking and biking trail from Seventh Avenue Northeast to Pine Avenue. My hope is that we implement a Safe Routes to School program and at the same time, develop a sidewalk and trail way system plan.

The proposed CRVST will go through Little Falls, potentially creating more use on city streets and sidewalks. We need to assess our trail system and find the best locations for it within the city.

The city has been discussing the possibility of placing campsites in a downtown park. RV and rustic sites are being considered along the Mississippi River.

There is great hope for the CRVST and what it will do for Little Falls and Central Minnesota, but timing is dependent on receiving funding from various sources.

If we do receive bonding bill money, we hope to acquire land and have finite engineering done on the first segment of the CRVST within a year, possibly moving dirt within two years.

Our primary goal is to make the connection between the Paul Bunyan and the Soo Line as soon as possible. It will take many years to complete all aspects of this trail, but I believe we are well on our way.

Cathy VanRisseghem is the mayor of Little Falls and can be reached at (320) 632-6847.