They say, “Good things come to those who wait.” This is certainly true for the Friends of the Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail. With the official opening of the 42-mile Fred Meijer Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail on Jan. 5, 2015, its journey—22 years after the Central Michigan Railroad officially terminated service on the corridor, came to a glorious end. The completed trail, which includes nine bridges and trestles, will showcase the Maple and Grand rivers, fertile farm fields, woodlands and five quaint communities conveniently spaced 8 to 10 miles apart along its length.
This project had more than its fair share of challenges due to the fact that it stretches across three very different rural counties, tripling the usual number of meetings and questions and concerns raised all along the way of your typical trail project. There was also a failed “Rams Horn” rail-trail effort from Bath to Owosso in 1994, which had left some lingering battle scars for local trail advocates.
Citizens Spring into Action
Initial discussions Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) held with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to outright purchase the corridor for interim use as a trail had held some fleeting promise. It was clear this had to be a citizen-led effort, and to that end, a small citizen’s coalition in St. Johns, CAPIT (Clinton Area Planning for Intergovernmental Teamwork), helped form a friends group in the spring of 1999.
The first few years saw a robust cycle of community meetings and due diligence paid to addressing concerns. By 2004, when meetings had been held several times in each community, and there was still no decisive action, RTC petitioned the counties to appoint three representatives each to a Tri-County Trail Study Committee. Experts came from all across the state to answer questions on hunting, trespassing, maintenance funding, property values, zoning and trail user safety, which led to support for the trail from all three counties.
Reaching Middle Ground
With public support won, questions remained about who would own and operate a three-county trail. These details were not easily hammered out between counties that, by some accounts, were not used to working together.
One boost came from the Meijer Foundation, which pledged $3 million if the communities agreed to own and operate the trail together.
And then, a dilemma—and another answer—came in 2006. The Michigan Milk Producers Association wished to purchase a segment of the corridor to allow for plant expansion, thereby bringing new jobs to the area. But—the unresolved trail project stood in the way. Then Governor Jennifer Granholm, in an effort to secure the new jobs and at the same time propel the new trail forward, asked MDOT and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to piece the project together and arrange for a property swap for the milk producers. A win-win.
By 2007, all issues were resolved, and the state of Michigan formally acquired the corridor for trail conversion. With ownership by the state, two of the three counties agreed to an interjurisdictional trail management authority, and fundraising began. Meanwhile, new rail-trail opportunities arose, adding a 41-mile extension to the proposed project and also materializing a connection at its northern endpoint to the existing 42-mile Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. This would make for a 125-mile connected rail-trail network. The emerging network would run through a range of ever-changing landscapes and cross jurisdictional boundaries at least 13 times throughout its course; obviously, it needed a master plan to present a united vision.
The National Park Service, together with the Michigan DNR and a team of stakeholders from each trail, provided a master blueprint for development. Grants from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and the federal Transportation Enhancements program ensured the acquisition.
The Friends of the Fred Meijer Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail were instrumental in raising $55,000, and local communities surrounding the trail corridor contributed $125,000. That funding matched $4.9 million in public grants and $1.6 million from the Meijer Foundation, which sealed the deal to acquire and develop the trail. Grants for the other segments of the long network were successful as well, leaving at this time only 27.5 miles to complete a 125-mile vision made possible by so many partners.
Welcome, Trail Users!
Communities along the Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail eagerly await the arrival of springtime trail users, who will enjoy the rivers, woods and meadows, and discover the small, welcoming towns, along the new trail.
“All in all, the trail will have a huge positive impact on the community, from increased business to potential new housing developments and the fantastic recreational opportunity it represents for everyone,” says Dana Beaman, mayor of the City of St. Johns.
It is a dream come true for Mid-Michigan (at last)—a chance to enhance their place in Michigan’s tourism picture and illuminate the great places that make the region such a quality place to live.