When Scott Lawson of Windsor, Mo., stepped into his local bank in 2009 and announced that he wanted to buy the Windsor Crossroads Motel, he got the response he expected.
“Are you crazy?” Lawson remembers the loan officer asking.
The Windsor Crossroads Motel was falling apart. It had no televisions much less wireless Internet, and a plumbing system from the 1950s. Residents of the town of 3,000 told visiting family members to avoid the place.
But Lawson insisted.
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He bought and renovated the hotel and now has enough patrons that his business is up and running in the black. And he’s expecting far more visitors in anticipation of a new project from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources: the Rock Island Trail.
Lawson is one of many business owners preparing for the state department to finish conversion of the out-of-use Rock Island Railway into a hiking and biking trail. The trail would stretch about 200 miles in Missouri, from Pleasant Hill, a town half an hour southeast of Kansas City, to Beaufort in the south-central part of the state. It also might loop with the Katy Trail, creating 400 miles of the longest rail-converted trail system in the country.
A year ago, the trail’s future was uncertain, but the Surface Transportation Board approved the transfer of the Rock Island corridor from Ameren Corp. to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in February. Now the greatest challenge is raising funds to build the trail as quickly as possible, said Greg Harris, executive director of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a non-profit coalition of trail supporters.
The Rock Island project has invited comparisons to the Katy Trail, but the two trails are unique. The Katy Trail follows the Missouri River across the state and passes by larger cities such as Columbia.
In contrast, the Rock Island trail is more rural with varied terrain and long tunnels and bridges, including a mile-long bridge 100 feet above the Gasconade River. The Rock Island route also travels through the middle of small towns, which is not as common along the Katy.
From rail town to trail town
Business owners along the trail are banking on more visitors, both local recreational trail users and out-of-state tourists.
The Katy Trail, which runs from St. Louis suburbs to Clinton, Mo., has played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors since it was converted from rail to trail 25 years ago. Bed and breakfasts began dotting the route, wineries saw more trail patrons, and bike shops popped up in towns such as Jefferson City and Sedalia.
The Katy Trail attracts about 400,000 visitors who spend $18.5 million each year, according to a 2012 Katy Trail economic impact report, commissioned by the state parks department and conducted by outside agencies. The report estimates that the average group visiting the trail on multi-day trips spends almost $150 each night.
Supporters of the new trail forecast a similar economic boost for towns along the Rock Island corridor.
It only makes sense, they say. The Rock Island Railway brought industry to train towns in mid-Missouri during the 20th century. Thirty years ago, the railway went out of commission, and the towns’ economies slumped. Now, the hope is that the trail will help revive the hard-hit towns.
“Business owners are anxious to see what volume the trail brings in,” said Kim Henderson, Windsor’s city manager.
Indeed, the town’s restaurants have already seen some traffic from the Katy Trail, which passes through Windsor. But Henderson hopes that once the Rock Island Trail is completely built and connected to Kansas City, even more traffic will come from the western part of the state. Business owners in the town have invested, adding a showerhouse and shelterhouse to campgrounds and constructing a few cabins near the Rock Island corridor, Henderson said.
Closer to Kansas City, Pleasant Hill businesses are gearing up for visitors as well. The town has embraced its new identity with a rebranding effort, complete with two new murals decorating its town square.
“Welcome to Pleasant Hill, where the tracks meet the trail,” one mural says.
Alan Voss returned to his hometown of Pleasant Hill after living on the East Coast to open up New Town Bike Shop two years ago.
As the trail is being built, Voss plays the waiting game. He works 60-70 hours a week to keep his bike repair and rental shop and coffeehouse alive, and he’s impatient to see the trail finished and functional.
“Right now, we’re getting by, but we’re not hugely profitable,” Voss said. “But when the trail is built, we plan to expand.”
He’s seen a few curious people stop by, but more progress in construction will mean more avid riders. And that means more bike shops along the trail.
Apprehension from trail neighbors
Not everyone is as optimistic.
“We have some doubts about the economic impact of the trail,” said Leslie Holloway of the Missouri Farm Bureau, which campaigned against the trail on behalf of landowners who live nearby.
Trail advocates ignore what the farm bureau sees as possible undesirable consequences of the trail, according to Holloway, such as interference with farming operations on property next to the Rock Island corridor.
Holloway also questioned certain figures in the Katy Trail economic impact report. The survey reports that visitor spending along the trail supports 367 jobs, but Holloway says that figure includes part-time and seasonal workers.
In addition, the Rock Island Trail may not have the draw of the Katy Trail, Holloway said.
“Before we get too far along here, let’s make sure we’re comparing apples to apples,” Holloway said.
Yet Warren Wood, vice president of external affairs and communications for Ameren Corp., the energy company giving the Rock Island Railway to the state, says the differing terrain of the Rock Island Trail will actually be attractive to visitors.
“I’ve driven nearby, and there are areas of (the trail) that will be remarkably beautiful,” Wood said.
Other critics of the project predict that the trail will be a burden on Missouri taxpayers. They wonder how the development and maintenance of the trail will be financed and are concerned about the possibility of higher taxes.
Trails, like any large state project, take money to build. Each mile may cost $5,000 to $50,000 depending on the terrain, said Brent Hugh, executive director of the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation. No formal cost estimate has yet been announced.
But Missourians didn’t see higher taxes when the Katy Trail was built. That trail was financed by a mix of public funding, federal grants and private donations, and “I wouldn’t expect this trail to be any different,” Wood said.
Several worries expressed by trail opponents echo concerns brought up while the Katy Trail was built. But now, the state’s residents largely agree that the Katy Trail is an asset to communities. According to the economic impact report, 93 percent of trail patrons are Missourians who rate the trail well overall.
When will the trail be completed?
Different parts of the trail are in various stages of development.
Construction on the stretch closest to Kansas City, which extends for 47 miles from Pleasant Hill to Windsor, is underway. Swaths of the trail have already been built, but those stretches are disconnected and 17 miles in total. This section of the trail will be completed next year.
The bulk of the trail runs for 144 miles across mid-to-eastern Missouri. It’s still in the process of being transferred from Ameren, which owns the Rock Island corridor, to the Department of Natural Resources.
Ameren is now conducting an archeological and historical site assessment of the trail, one of the last pieces required by the federal Surface Transportation Board before the salvage process can begin.
Salvaging the corridor, which includes pulling up the steel plates and ties, will be finished in 2019. A timeframe for construction of the trail is unclear, depending on where the state can find funding for it.
In addition, Jackson County has been negotiating with Union Pacific Railroad to buy a corridor that runs from Greenwood to Kansas City, close to Kauffman Stadium. Jackson County hopes to connect this trail to the Rock Island Trail, but there are no promises for the outcome of the negotiations.
Mark Randall, the city administrator of Pleasant Hill and an earnest supporter of the trail, awaits the day when cyclists can ride from Kansas City to St. Louis and stop in his town along the way.
“Even if we have a fraction of the visitors towns get from the Katy Trail, it would make a big impact on our community,” Randall said.
And, if trail advocates are correct, a big impact on the state, too.
To reach Kasia Kovacs, call 816-234-4455 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @kasiakovacs.
What is railbanking?
The Rock Island Trail will be created through railbanking, the process of turning a defunct railroad into a trail. The tracks and ties are pulled up, but the corridor itself is preserved. The trail is considered an “interim trail,” because it could be turned back into a working railroad.
Almost 2,000 tracks have been railbanked in the past 30 years, and only a few have been converted back to a working railroad.
But railbanking has also drawn objection from some landowners who live along the Rock Island corridor.
Property owners granted the railroad company the right-of-way to build over their land through easement. Now some of these landowners argue that, since the railway is out of service, that corridor should return to their ownership. But under the National Trails Act, the corridor is not yet considered abandoned.