With lots of attention being paid these days to how trail systems encourage healthy communities, there is a lot of buzz around Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois' St. Louis Metro Area. The reason for the buzz? The Metro East Park and Recreation District(MEPRD), which since 2000 has helped build hundreds of miles of dedicated bike facilities and sparked a surge in active transportation. Keen to learn how they do it, RTC grabbed a couple of minutes with its executive director, Mike Buehlhorn.
In one sentence, what does MEPRD do?
Metro East Park and Recreation District (MEPRD) was formed to build an interconnecting system of parks and trails throughout Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois.
When we asked our members and supporters in Illinois to tell us what great things were happening in their state around trails, biking and walking, you guys kept coming up. What's all the excitement about over there?
We are unique in the state of Illinois. MEPRD not only builds trails, we also assist other entities, a.k.a. "our partners," by providing grant program funds to them, so together we improve and expand the park and trail infrastructure throughout our shared jurisdictions. We are proud of these partnerships. We all work toward a common goal of providing quality recreational opportunities to everyone in the two-county area. Not only do we think these partnerships are the key to our success, but they allow the region to leverage funds from multiple sources which is vitally important these days with fewer dollars to go around.
If you're not an avid biker or walker, what's the big deal? Why should your local citizens and businesspeople care about better trails and active transportation systems?
That is an easy one! To provide healthy alternatives, to cut back on our carbon footprint, to provide alternative modes of transportation (whether that be for doing so out of necessity or those doing so for fun), to retain and attract younger populations, and finally, to understand the current demand for these types of community amenities.
You guys are famous for throwing a great party. What's a highlight moment from one of your community celebrations that made you stop and say to yourself "gee, my job is pretty cool."
I assume you are talking about our Independence Day Celebration at Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park. On the last night during the fireworks over the Arch grounds, you get that feeling of "wow, I can't believe we pulled this off." It is without a doubt one of the premier locations on the Mississippi River to watch the fireworks from Fair St. Louis, and it's great to have an event that is alcohol free and geared completely towards children.
There are a lot of counties across America trying to do what you have done, in terms of building connected trail systems. How have you been successful there in Madison and St. Clair counties?
You need a great relationship between the Board of Directors, staff and the communities that make up the district to ensure the cooperation that is necessary to get projects done from start to finish.
It's obviously not all victory dances and streamers. What are some of the challenges you face to encouraging more biking and walking in your community?
There are always issues regarding funding that can be detrimental to any project, and that is where the political challenges take place. We are fortunate to have a great set of community, regional and state leaders that understand and embrace the importance of the work we're doing. Their cooperation and support makes the park and trail projects happen, in turn improving the lives of over half a million residents in the Metro-East.
Check out a host of great trails events happening in the Metro-East area, including the Mission Possible 5k in O'Fallon, October 19, at www.meprd.org/calendar