Rails to Trails Project Could Connect Neillsville, Granton, and Chili

Trail systems are seen as important tools for economic development. Pictured: Green Circle Trail in Stevens Point.

(OnFocus) Central Wisconsin could have a new 13-mile trail system linking Neillsville, Granton, and Chili that would provide new opportunities to bike, ski, and snowshoe.

The Neillsville Improvement Corporation (NIC), a nonprofit involved in community development projects since 1989, is currently in the early planning stages of the project. The trail was first identified by the DNR as a candidate for development in 2003 and included in Neillsville’s 20-year strategic plan in 2013. The project finally picked up steam about five years ago after NIC members spearheaded the task of forming a non-motorized trail system.

About 98% of the proposed trail is a former railbed that connected Merrillan to Marshfield and is currently an active powerline corridor owned by Xcel Energy. The NIC would purchase the land from Xcel Energy, which last year issued a conditional purchase agreement to the nonprofit.

Proposed trail route

The NIC is actively working on acquiring the remaining pieces of private land from three private landowners and the Village of Granton, which has already pledged partnership and selected the community park as a trailhead. This would be done through purchase or easement of the land, or re-routing. As a nonprofit, the NIC doesn’t have the ability to seize private property for public use.

The trail project is still in the early planning stages and no land has been purchased or money spent, said Dan Clough, NIC President.

The technical aspects of the trail are straightforward and an informal feasibility process concluded that the project would be able to get all required permits and permissions. Once the route is finalized and land purchased, the NIC will create a formal plan with a professional engineering company.

“We will have to reshape the roadbed, repair culverts, re-establish ditches, surface it with packed gravel and replace the missing bridges. All of that is straightforward and many construction companies are available with the ability to do this,” said Clough. “I don’t see anything on this trail that can’t be solved.”

Due to budgetary reasons, the trail will be completed in sections. It will be funded entirely through donations and later on, grants. No tax money is planned. “If all goes well, some sections may be ready in two years; some may take five or six,” he said. “It is still not a sure thing that the project can even be done. This is a complex project and there are still many hurdles to overcome.”

Once an engineering plan is prepared, the project can apply to grants to mitigate costs. Until then, the project’s success will depend on donations from the community. Informal assessments place the budget between $600,000-800,000 for the entire 13-mile project, but as it is still early in the process, this estimate could change.

“Also, we are doing this project in phases so we do not have to have the full amount at any one time,” said Clough. “As we work through the planning, the budget number will be better defined.”

While the trail has received widespread public support, the organization is working to address concerns brought up by a few adjacent landowners who are staunchly against the project. Liability, privacy, and disruption to farming are all concerns which NIC members have diligently worked to address.

“NIC has from the beginning stated they don’t want to disrupt agriculture if at all possible. We want to sit down with every adjacent landowner,” said Clough. “Every trail faces resistance during the planning stages. We are working through that slowly.”

The trail’s supporters see the project as a positive step toward economic development for the three small communities.

“Every area across the country where a trail is constructed receives an economic boost,” said Clough. “Typically trails increase tourism, increase recreation, promote healthy lifestyles, and make the area more attractive for potential new businesses and employees.”

Though it’s been a long process, planners are optimistic about the project’s success and dream that one day the trail could extend further and maybe connect to The Highground — but first things first.

As the project progresses, the NIC anticipates that a separate organization will be formed to take charge of maintenance for the trail. In the meantime, more information about the project can be found at the NIC website, neillsvilleimprovement.jimdo.com, and its Facebook page.

Those interested in contributing toward the project can send a tax-deductible donation to NIC, 508 Hewett Street, Neillsville 54456. Connect with NIC by calling 715-743-3440.

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Kaylin S
Author: Kaylin S

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