The late Fred Meijer, longtime owner of the Meijer chain of grocery stores, wanted people to get out of the cities and into nature. To make that happen, he worked to create a system of trailways across West Michigan. Now, one of the groups that has taken over his work is hoping to extend its trail through Lowell. However, without quick action from city leaders, it looks as though the trail may bypass the downtown completely.
A Look at the Fred Meijer Trail Network
Meijer began his efforts to build a trail system for West Michigan residents in 1994. It was in that year he donated $265,000 to buy an abandoned rail line in Greenville for what would eventually become the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. It runs for more than 45 miles from Greenville to Alma.
Since then, the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park has been completed to run the 92 miles from Comstock Park to Cadillac. In 2010, the Fred Meijer Pioneer Trail was undertaken to connect the state park to the Musketawa Trail in Ottawa County as well to various Grand Rapids trails.
The Friends of The Fred Meijer River Valley Rail-Trails (FMRVRT) is hoping to next bring the system to Lowell. The big question is whether the trail will run through the city or around it.
What a Trail Would Mean for Lowell
Thanks to the Lowell Area Recreational Authority (LARA), the community already has its own system of trails. The Lowell Area Trailway connects the Wittenbach Wege Center on Vergennes to the city. Further expansion is being planned to run the trail south to the North Grand River Park currently under development in Lowell Township.
Meanwhile, the FMRVRT is looking for a way to connect its trail segments from Saranac to Greenville. Options include running the trail through the city and linking into the LARA trails or skirting around the city through the townships. For the city, having the Fred Meijer Trail Network connect with the Lowell Area Trailway could open up new funding sources for the further expansion or maintenance of the local trail system.
More importantly, area businesses would also benefit from a boon of traffic that could conceivably arrive with trail hikers and bicyclists. While recent data isn’t readily available, past studies have supported the idea that trail users tend to boost the economies of the communities they pass through.
The Great Alleghany Passage Economic Impact Study (2007-2008) found 800,000 trips were taken on that 141-mile trail annually, and trail tourists spent $40.8 million in 2008. Business owners along the trail attributed a quarter of their revenue to trail users. That isn’t too surprising since trail tourists tend to have high incomes and, therefore, more discretionary spending. When bicyclists in North Carolina’s Outer Banks were surveyed, it was discovered 81 percent had a college degree and 78 percent had household incomes exceeding $75,000.
There also appears to be a trend for bicyclists to plan brew pub trips. These involve a day of riding to brew pubs and restaurants along the trail. Between The New Union Brewery and Big Boiler Brewing, Lowell might be a natural stop for these trips.
A Tale of Two Meetings
Many of the major trail systems throughout the nation draw in hundreds of thousands of users each year. The Fred Meijer Trail Network has the same potential to bring a steady stream of high-quality foot traffic to Lowell. However, while Lowell Township appears eager to move the ball forward, the project seems to have stalled in the City of Lowell.
On Monday night, the FMRVRT gave a Walkable Communities presentation to the Lowell Township Board. Some board members expressed frustration with the slow response from the city. It was suggested the Lowell connector for the Fred Meijer Trail Network could go through the North Grand River Park to avoid waiting for city action on the issue.
At the same time, Lowell City Council was having its own meeting and also talking about the Fred Meijer Trail Network. Although Mayor Pro Tem Alan Teelander is the city representative on the LARA board, it was Councilmember Greg Canfield who asked to have the item added to the agenda. At Canfield’s request, LARA chair Perry Beachum was on-hand to provide an update.
“It’s important the council moves forward soon,” Beachum said. Since the trail could replace sidewalks in part of the city, it is crucial to have some direction on how those trails could be used and who would be responsible for maintenance. “How is the City Council going to address that?” he asked.
For example, current city ordinances prohibit bicycle use on sidewalks and that would need to be amended to allow bikes at least on those sidewalks which are designated part of the trail. In addition, the trail would be significantly wider than a sidewalk, mostly likely either 10 or 14 feet across There are questions regarding whether property owners would be responsible for removing snow and maintaining that entire width. Apparently, in other cities, residents have only been required to remove snow from a portion of the trail equivalent to a sidewalk width.
What’s Next for the Lowell Connector
After Beachum’s comments, Teelander suggested holding a workshop to discuss the item further. It was decided that a special joint meeting between City Council and LARA would be held before the April 3rd City Council meeting. Planning Commission members would also be encouraged to attend.
Although the special meeting is a positive step toward clearing the way for the Fred Meijer Trail Network to run through Lowell, it won’t be the first time the boards have held a joint meeting on the subject. Beachum notes LARA had previously invited City Council to a joint meeting to discuss five potential trail routes through the city. That meeting was held months ago, but the council did not take any further action afterward. Beachum said he has also mentioned the issue several times since then during the citizens comments portion of council meetings. He was unsure why the council hasn’t taken more of an interest in the trail before now.
Meanwhile, the FMRVRT isn’t ruling out any plan for their Lowell connector. In a statement, Chairman Robert Brown said, “We are dedicated to completing the Fred Meijer Mid-Michigan Trail Network and will engage with all our community partners and consider all options.”
Stay tuned to Lowell’s First Look for further information as this issue develops.