Kim Henderson and Shelby Teufel have a few things in common.
While Henderson is a business owner in Windsor and Teufel is the city administrator in Pleasant Hill, both are board members of the nonprofit coalition Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., living on opposing ends of the 47-mile segment of the already developed Rock Island Spur.
They said economic development along the 144-mile abandoned railroad stretch has already begun. The former railroad is being donated by Ameren. If accepted, it would become Rock Island Trail, requiring maintenance from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources State Parks Division.
“In 2018, we had 16 percent of our downtown businesses either change property owners or change tenancy,” Teufel said. “Our vacancy rate within our downtown is starting to change. It’s not 100 percent attributable to the trail, but I’m telling you, there’s a correlation there that’s unmatched.”
The MoRIT organization held its annual meeting Thursday at The Linc. Speakers from Ameren, State Parks and University of Missouri Extension addressed the crowd of about 40.
“We have one mission,” MoRIT President Rick Peth said, “to preserve the Rock Island Trail as a historic part of Missouri.”
If adopted, the trail development could connect to the Katy Trail, creating a loop around the state for walking, biking and horseback riding.
Residents of communities along the trail including Belle, Eldon and Owensville came to hear about the progress.
“We’re very supportive of it,” Eldon Mayor Larry Henderson said.
Missouri Central Railroad Company and DNR submitted an extension request Jan. 17 on deciding if it will accept the railroad corridor from Ameren. The extension was granted, making the new deadline Aug. 20.
Pat Curry, with MU Extension Community Economic and Entrepreneurial Development, gave the keynote address. Curry, and graduate student Martha Bass, authored the Rock Island Trail Opportunity Analysis in November.
The 33-page report found 98.6 percent of submitted public comments were in support of the trail. More than 1 percent were opposed, and 0.2 percent seemed undecided or without a clear position.
“Trail-based recreation drives outdoor recreation demand more than any other thing,” Curry said. “From an economic development perspective, this kind of set the stage for us in terms of convincing us this looked pretty valid. You’ve got this extraordinary kind of setting with many, many small towns, and every one of them is going to have an opportunity to have a piece of this pie.”
Warren Wood, Ameren vice president of External Affairs and Communications, said two legislative bills could move fundraising efforts forward for the organization. He suggested a 501 (c)(3) may be a next step for donations for trail development.
“House Bill 1044, it was heard in House committee earlier this week,” Wood said. “Senate Bill 473, the companion bill in the Senate, is up for hearing next Monday at 2 p.m. Either one of those bills pass, it creates the Rock Island Park Endowment Fund.”
State Rep. David Wood, of Versailles, proposed the fund. He said it would ensure appropriate money is used for trail development, if adopted.
Rep. Wood told the News Tribune previously that the trail would be beneficial to many.
“My opinion up until now, and it has been stated before, is we should accept the trail and let the cities develop their portions of it but not spend any money beyond the fencing and gates,” he previously said.
Jefferson City resident Charles Skornia said his family’s soy bean farm is along the corridor.
“The previous owners never did maintain that fence,” Skornia said. “It’s expensive to build a fence. If they (the state) pay for the materials, I’ll put the fence up.”
The speakers agreed every department is working together on this project.
“No one here ever denied that the rail corridors and trails are important to the state,” said Mike Sutherland, Missouri State Parks deputy director. “State Parks is an advocate of trails. We’ve got the Katy Trail, which we have people on it all the time.”
The development of the proposed Rock Island would have to be different, he added. The park operates on about $50 million budget and is working on maintenance repair projects in existing parks. The department estimates the cost of development is $65 million-$85 million.
“There have been times where this looks pretty pessimistic,” Sutherland said. “We want to be respectful of the property owners along the corridor so we have had a lot of interaction with them. We’re trying to find a path forward. We haven’t come to a conclusion.”