Trails and greenways are community-based projects, and every project needs broad community support to be a success. As soon as you have created your vision, shop it around to groups that may be interested in the project, such as land trusts, bicycle and pedestrian advocacy groups, bird-watching groups and equestrians. Emphasize the broad benefits of trails and greenways and the specific benefits to your community. Also talk to your local parks department and/or town planner. These individuals will be able to help you with design, funding and other issues to make the trail a community priority.
At this point, your vision is growing beyond just you and will become the community’s vision, so be open to suggestions, and be willing to compromise. And to keep your project moving forward intact, you may want to form an official “friends-of-the-trail” group composed of your allies, the cheerleaders and undaunted pursuers of the project.
How to Create a “Friends-of-the-Trail” Group
Friends groups have been the driving force behind countless successful rail-trails, particularly those projects that have encountered obstacles or opposition and needed steadfast advocates. When you have compiled a master list of potentially interested organizations and individuals, you are ready to hold an organizing meeting. This meeting will help identify the core group of strong supporters who are willing to participate in a friends group. Afterward, you can meet with these core supporters to discuss formalizing the group’s organization and purpose. Things you will need to discuss include the following:
- Choosing a name for your organization that relates to the trail, such as Friends of the Coventry Greenway or Friends of the Rock Island Trail
- Drafting a mission statement, a set of objectives and a timeline
- Creating a website, brochure and other materials that identify the project and purpose of the organization, a map of the proposed trail and a membership form for other prospective “friends”
- Maintaining a newsletter to keep members informed about the progress of the trail
- Finding out what your members’ skills are, such as writing, graphic design, business connections or meeting organization, and matching their strengths with your group's needs
Some friends groups eventually incorporate as 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, a federal designation that gives an organization tax-exempt status and allows it to open a bank account, and raise and receive donations. While incorporating has clear benefits, it also requires a considerable amount of time, energy and resources to go through the process. Consider this step carefully; many groups opt not to incorporate and instead receive donations through other larger nonprofits that operate as a “pass-through.” To learn more about starting a nonprofit, consult the Free Management Library’s resource, Starting a Nonprofit Organization.
How to Build Community Support for Your Trail Project
Below are some ideas for building awareness and support for your trail—before, during and after its completion. Be creative, make it fun, and continue to focus on the benefits the trail will bring or is already bringing to your community.
Organize a Trail EventGet people out on the trail, and get them excited about the vision of what it will become. If it’s already built, remind them of how great it is. Consider organizing an event on the American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day or RTC’s Opening Day for Trails to keep the trail among the community’s priorities and to spotlight its advantages.
Work the MediaBuild awareness through the press. Get supporters to write editorials and letters to the editor of local newspapers that advocate for the project.
Identify a High-Profile ChampionDoes the mayor support your project? A county commissioner? Getting support from an elected official or community leader will add legitimacy and visibility to the project.
Create a WebsiteIt’s helpful to have all the information about your trail project in one place where the maximum number of people can access it (including contact info for trail representatives). Try finding the talent and resources within your group of supporters to set up a site.
Develop a Vision DocumentSimilar to a website, a vision document compiles the information about a trail project in one place and in an easily circulated form. This document is essential when you’re working on building support and awareness, as it can be easily handed out at meetings or mailed to adjacent landowners.