As Missouri Rethinks Bike Trails, A Small Town Frets Over Losing An Economic Lifeline
Ever since the Rock Island railway ceased operations in the 1980s, the town of Belle in central Missouri has been an isolated pocket, far from any city or major highway that might bring business through town.
“You’ve heard the term ‘one-horse town’? We’re pretty much there,” says Richard Huse, who grew up in Belle and is now a town alderman. “We’re 1,500 people. And like all the small communities around here, we struggle.”
About four years ago, when Belle residents heard about plans to convert the abandoned railway into a bike trail, they saw an opportunity: a chance to become an oasis for cyclists passing through.
The plans called for the old railroad line to become a 144-mile rails-to-trails project spanning most of the state and dipping through the northern edge of the Ozarks.
The trail would loop with the Katy Trail, another rails-to-trails project mostly completed in the mid-1990s. Combined, the two trails would create one of the longest cycling paths in the country.
Belle community leaders worked with government agencies to get funding for the part of the trail running through their town and laid out plans for an ambitious community improvement plan.
One of Huse’s neighbors even decided to start a bike rental business.
“He’s already bought the bicycles!” Huse says with a laugh.
As laid out, the trail would run past the city park and near Belle’s historic downtown. Mark McClane, executive director of the local Osage Arts Community, says cyclists would have easy access to the best the town has to offer, including an art gallery and the Dinner Belle Greek restaurant. Some residents have even considered opening bed and breakfasts.
“They can come right off the trail, put their bikes in the bike racks and walk through the gallery,” McClane says. “They go have something to eat. Then they can walk to the bookstore, take a break from being in the sun. Get rejuvenated, then back on the trail again.”
In 2014, Belle was awarded a federal grant of around $72,000 for their portion of the trail, and late last year then-Gov. Jay Nixon announced plans for the state to take over the railway in 2017.
So Belle mayor Steve Vogt says he was a little frustrated earlier this year when state officials told him the new administration of Gov. Eric Greitens was reconsidering the trail and that the town should hold off on construction.
“Obviously, it’s disappointing,” Vogt says. “We’ve got great weather. We could really be making hay on it right now.”
In truth, not everyone along the Rock Island line is as bike-crazy as the leaders of Belle.
About 80 miles west of Belle, just outside of Versailles, farmer Dwayne Chad drives his pickup along the Rock Island tracks near his house. Like many farmers who have spoken out against the trail, he’s concerned about safety, privacy and crime the trail might invite.
“You can see right here where we’re at right now. There’s a house within – what? – 75, 100 feet, of where the trail would be,” says Chad, pointing to track that runs within throwing distance of a farm house.
His biggest concern, however, is its cost to taxpayers.
As Chad drives farther along the tracks, he points out bridges that will need to be rebuilt and stretches of trail that are overgrown with trees.
“We’ve got roads and bridges that our ambulances, that our buses, that our people drive on that needs this money, instead of putting it a trail that is just a playground for a few thousand people,” Chad says.
Chad believes there are already enough trails in the state, and he’s doubtful the Rock Island Trail would create the economic stimulus towns like Belle are counting on.
“You just cannot sell enough bottles of Gatorade or water or fix enough flat tires on bicycles to boost the economy along this trail,” he says.
Earlier this summer, Missouri State Parks invited public comments on the future of the trail. Mike Sutherland, who became deputy director of parks in June, says the level of interest has been high.
Sutherland explains the project involves a maze of state, local and federal government agencies and a complex mix of public and private funds. He says the new administration is still trying to sort through it.
“We’re in a position where we’re evaluating any future projects and trying to do our due diligence on really evaluating what the immediate and long-term liabilities, costs and benefits would be,” he says.
For residents of Belle like Barb Schaller, however, there’s no overstating the value of – or the local support for – the Rock Island Trail.
While not a new factory or warehouse, Schaller says, a bike trail would be a shot in the arm in a place that hasn’t had encouraging economic news in a long time.
“The trail would be one of the best things that ever happened to this community,” Schaller says. “For every negative comment or feeling that you get about the trail, you’re going to have many, many more positive ones.”
Sutherland says the department will likely take comments through the end of July, but there’s no timetable for a decision.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR