By Charles Chandler, N3 Contributor, Trail Enthusiast
On February 1st about 30 interested community members from Lake, Mason, Newaygo and Oceana braved the cold and occasional whiteout to meet for a Regional Trail Connectivity Summit in Hart, MI.
The Summit host was Spenser Riggs Executive Director of the Mason County Growth Alliance. Mr. Riggs opened the Summit and gave an overview of the work at hand. He stated that in 2017 a group of leaders from Lake, Mason, Newaygo and Oceana counties met and working under the direction of Michigan State University Extension established an Economic Alliance Development (LEAD) partnership. With $50,000 in grant funds, they began helping various groups within the four counties, identify and share common assets, and pool resources in three critical economic development areas. These were Workforce Development, Broadband Infrastructure, and Regional Recreational Trails Connectivity.
The purpose of the Summit in Hart was to convene those key stakeholders representing recreational trails in Lake, Mason, Newaygo and Oceana counties. Some attending the Summit were, Scott Faulkner, Treasurer, Newaygo Nationals Association, Tobi Lake, Administrator Lake County, Jim Maike Newaygo County Commissioner, Nick Smith, Newaygo County Parks Director, Mark Guzniczak from NCEDO,Kathy Bietau representing the Huron-Manistee National Forest, Kenny Wasnick representing the North Country Scenic Trail and Jamie Way representing West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission.
The participants were given Summit pre-work including answering questions about the most popular types of trails, the least used trails, and issues facing trail users and managers in the four counties. With guidance from consultant Norman Cox from the Greenway Collaborative, Inc. the attendees reviewed regional trail asset maps, and marked trails that were not previously identified. There were also asked to name some of the unique ecological and cultural characteristics of the four counties. With these maps and from table conversations the participants were able to see the variety and number of trails in the four-county area and how disconnected they are.
One of the more interesting tasks was to collectively develop a description for the four county region that could become the recreational trails brand identity and would then be used in marketing literature and incorporated into larger Michigan Trail System.
All participants had ample opportunities to offer opinions and give feedback to the consultants and facilitators. Mr. Faulkner, always the visionary, suggested that when considering economic and environmental character the region being discussed is really larger than the four counties. The region could be considered that area from MDOT 131 on the east and extends from Grand Rapids up to Traverse City including the"ports of entry" from Grand Haven to Manistee.
After the Summit N3 asked facilitators and consultants Cox and Mehmed if their expectations for participation and outcomes were met. Both agreed that the participants were productive and recognized the scope and scale of work required to integrate the various recreational trails in the region. Additionally, they were surprised as to how well the attendees worked together given their diverse recreational interest. The participants identified the need to develop more and longer loop trails because they eliminate user backtracking or car spotting. Other pointed to the need for a common or regional language for wayfinding signage.
When consultant Cox was asked about next steps and timelines he mentioned that they would be taking the marked up maps, notes and suggestions from the Summit and refining that information to be presented in additional meeting with the larger community. The purpose of expanding the audience is to ensure there is further collaboration in defining the vision for integrating the regional trails and setting priorities for spending limited resources.
Summit host Riggs suggested that by midsummer we should have a working document that would include the vision, preliminary plans and strategies for growing and connecting the regional trails.
And hopefully some strong arguments for the benefits this initiative would bring to the recreational users and communities of the four counties.