Ready or not, Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail moving forward

Late addition to state bonding bill receives $1.732 million

By Patrick Slack, Staff Writer

It is just a step.

But an important step. A vital step. A seven-figure step.

The Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail (CRVST) was a late addition to the Minnesota legislature’s 2014 bonding bill through reconciliation, receiving $1.732 million.

The day was eight years in the making, when former state House Rep. Al Doty helped make the trail a part of the state system.

Every year since that point that the state has bonded, the trail has been put forth before the Legislature.

It nearly made it through once, but was a casualty to a veto by then-Governor Tim Pawlenty.

Now, though, the real work can start.

“The wait’s not over,” said Bob Reinitz, Camp Ripley Veterans State Trail committee chair. “We’ve got a long way to go. This is just the beginning.”

Late surge in support

It didn’t appear things were going to fall in place this year, as the CRVST was not part of either the House or Senate bills as of Monday, May 12.

A day later, the trail made its way into the House bill, bumping out a couple of other trails along the way.

The day after that, it found its way into the Senate bill and survived, as it did again when the bills were merged in reconciliation.

“On Friday, everybody was trying to say ‘We made it, we made it,’ and I’m going, ‘No, no,’” Reinitz said. “Finally, Friday night the governor announced he was going to sign the bill as is.”

Gov. Mark Dayton still reserves the power of using a line-item veto on any project, but hadn’t given any indication he would.

Not only does the bill provide obvious financial support for the project, it serves as validation that it will likely become a reality.

“Once the Legislature starts to fund you and your project, they have a tendency to keep going,” Little Falls Mayor Cathy VanRisseghem said. “The big thing was for us to get our foot in the door.”

“We’re for real now,” Reinitz said. “All the naysayers, wherever they are, can’t say that this isn’t going to happen anymore. It’s going to happen.”

The bill got a bipartisan push from area legislators to help make it happen.

Rep. John Ward, D-Baxter, was the sponsor who got the bill onto the house floor, and received help from Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who wanted it done and aided in working out a deal.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, was also one of the few Republicans to vote for the plan.

“What’s cool about this project is that everybody is working together,” VanRisseghem said. “It’s not ‘me’ and ‘my,’ it’s ‘us.’ That’s why this thing is getting done, and why it’s getting done so fast.”

“Anybody who sits down and really understands what the trail will do for this area gets on board,” Reinitz said. “Everybody. Once they can understand the vision, this is going to change Little Falls.”

A sense of urgency

Although it’s been a lengthy wait, few trails have been able to progress at the speed of CRVST.

Nonetheless, there was a sense that if it wasn’t funded this year, it could be a long wait until another chance like this would arise.

“What we were seeing was that they put in a lot of money for trails this year. A lot ($18.1 million). We felt that if we didn’t get in, next year they’re going to say, ‘Well, we put in so much last year we’re not going to do it this year.’ Or they’d say that a couple years down the road,” VanRisseghem said.”

“Because there was such a big push for trails this year, we really needed to be in this bonding bill,” she said.

“There’s a real good possibility there’s not going to be a bonding bill next year,” Reinitz said. “Then it might be two years, and then what if there’s a really conservative legislature? We might get excluded again.”


Where it will go

The trail is going to fill the missing 32-mile link between the Soo Line trail and the Paul Bunyan Trail, starting with the Soo Line and running through Little Falls and on to the south end of Camp Ripley.

From there, it will go to Crow Wing State Park and Pillager, back around the west and south side of Camp Ripley and south to the Soo Line.

One addition could be the incorporation of Randall.

“It doesn’t make any sense not to include Randall,” Reinitz said. “That’s too long of a stretch. There are no restrooms, there are no bars, people need refreshments, facilities, etc.”

One of the biggest things the CRVST has going for it is that it is considered a connecting trail, giving it a high priority.

“We are probably the most important connecting trail in the state of Minnesota,” Reinitz said. “If we can complete our trail, honest to God, just the bike trail part of it, we will have created the longest paved off-road trail in the world. Honestly, it’s going to bring people from all over the world.”

It is also the first Department of Natural Resources (DNR) state trail that is multimodal in design from the beginning, for motorized and non-motorized use.

That has helped unite forces that are typically adversaries, with 98 different organizations participating in the project, VanRisseghem said.

“You need to know how unusual that is,” Reinitz said. “Bikers usually fight with ATVers who fight with snowmobilers. We have all these people in the same room and they’re fighting tooth and nail – together – to help us accomplish this goal.”

He said he wouldn’t even mind a few more groups of people getting involved in designing the trail to fit their needs, such as cross country skiers and equestrian riders.


Moving at one speed … fast

The DNR has attempted to rein in the speed at which the project has progressed, and with understandable cause.

With all of the trails that have been authorized, even if they didn’t build another new one for 15 years, they wouldn’t get them all done, Reinitz said.

That hasn’t led him to ease off the accelerator, though.

“The DNR tells us we’re going too fast, slow down. I’m a business guy – I can’t believe how long it takes to get things done. In business this would have been resolved one way or another years ago. To me it’s crazy,” Reinitz said. “The DNR has told us many times we’re moving much faster than any other trail they’ve ever worked with.

“The DNR didn’t really want this to go through this year,” he said. “They’ve openly told me that. They’re not ready for us. We laugh at each other, and I say I’m still going to push for it … it’s a great relationship, actually. The DNR people are very impressive people. They’ve been great to work with. Are we pushing them faster than they want to go? Yeah. Such is life.”

The reason for the haste is pretty simple for Reinitz, and has led him to not be afraid to “stomp a few toes.”

“I didn’t want to see my downtown go away … this trail will save our downtown,” he said. “We don’t need more parking lots, we need more businesses. We can’t wait any longer.

“A government body actually sat me down and said, ‘We do not want this, you’re moving too fast, slow down.’ I said, ‘Ain’t going to happen. You have two choices: get on board and be part of it, or watch it happen. But it’s going to happen.’”

And today?

“That organization is all over this thing now,” he said.

Preparing for what’s next

Little Falls has been gearing up for the trail over the past few years, with projects for bike racks, bike safety and bike education.

“Everything is starting to mesh together, and this is the driving force,” VanRisseghem said.

While the CRVST committee sought $2 million in funding, the final $1.732 million figure was approximately a 10 percent reduction the legislature desired.

It will go toward acquisition and construction, with $50,000 already being spent this year on a study to come up with the corridor.

What will this do for local economies?

VanRisseghem didn’t feel the need to understate it.

“This is going to change the face of Central Minnesota,” she said.