Metro Grand Rapids Shows Its Greenways

Rapid Growth Media: Daniel Schoonmaker
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Randy Cleves set a goal last year to ride every foot
of all the paved bicycle paths in West Michigan with his wife Colleen
and then 5-year-old son Regan — the equivalent of taking a bike ride
from Grand Rapids to Philadelphia.

The family logged more than 150 miles between the Kent Trails, the Fred Meijer White
Pine Trail
 State Park and other local trails before Regan’s little
legs gave out. And though they didn’t traverse the entire system “such
an accomplishment would’ve been impossible in other cities I’ve lived,”
says Cleves, 38, senior director of public relations for the Grand
Rapids Griffins who came to the area by way of Kansas City, Dayton and

Maija Cutler Hahn is on the trails three times a
week, usually Kent Trails and its tributaries, with her two toddlers in
tow in a chariot behind her bike. She cites the trails as one of the
reasons she moved to Grandville a year and a half ago from the West
Coast. “Seattle has mountain biking, mostly single-track trails,” says
Hahn, 37, a speech pathologist. “I would never have been able to do what
I do here.”

In his native Omaha, Josh Duggan had to drive nearly an hour to reach
the type of trail assets and access to nature that is literally a short
bike ride from any urban area in West Michigan. In Detroit, Karen
Dunnam never found a trail where she could be free of the city’s urban
sprawl and obnoxious traffic.

While it may lack the sex appeal of a Medical Mile or downtown
entertainment district, West Michigan’s extensive network of walking and
biking trails has quietly become one of its most marketable assets.
Hundreds of miles of walking and biking trails radiate from the hub of
Grand Rapids like spokes in a wheel, and investment in trails over the
past decade has been staggering.

Here, There and Everywhere
Since launching in
2000, the West
Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition 
has overseen roughly $27
million in trail investment for the 585 miles of trail in its network.
Last month it announced nearly $3 million between two projects on the
Fred Meijer Heartland Trail that runs from Lowell to Belding. Several
other Fred Meijer trials will soon be under construction, including
critical connections in the Berry Junction, Kenowa and Standale trails.
Meanwhile, the Lowell Area Trailway campaign just announced that it had
met its $1.1 million fundraising goal.

Much of it built along abandoned railroads and with the same formula
of public support, philanthropy and engaged citizenry responsible for
the region’s marquee attractions, several hundred miles of improved
trails are now available or under development.

The dozen trails in the Fred Meijer Trail System will link Grand Rapids to
Rockford, Cadillac, Big Rapids, Holland, Muskegon, Hart, Saugatuck and a
host of communities in between. Shorter nature escapes such as Huff and
Riverside Parks and Blandford Nature Center  are minutes from downtown
Grand Rapids. Single-track mountain bike venues are nearby. And there
are also a wide variety of natural hiking trails in the region,
including premiere segments along the Lakeshore and the North Country
National Scenic Trail 
that passes through Lowell (its national
headquarters) and northern Kent County on its way to the Upper Peninsula
and onward to North Dakota.

For Dunnam, the city’s bicycle planner when the position existed in
2005, the trails are a means of introducing citizens to cycling without
having to interact with motorists, a potentially critical component for
the region to increase bicycle commuters. To the 30-year-old Duggan,
organizer of a popular fall color tour, the trails are a boon for the
creative class.

“It wasn’t the reason I moved here, but it’s definitely one of the
reasons I stayed,” he says. “A lot of people my age are moving back into
the urban areas. They want to live near where they work and where they
shop. Here you can have that and still be close to all these natural

When You Need a Break from the City
According to
the Friends
of Grand Rapids Parks
, a program that emerged through the city’s
Green Grand Rapids initiative, 65 percent of survey respondents use
parks for walking and jogging, the most popular use.

“We’re entering into a golden age of paths and walkways in Grand
Rapids,” says Steve Faber, executive director of Friends of Grand Rapids
Parks. Faber points to the shorter nature trails found in various city
parks as a key resource for urban living. “People love living in the
city, but they also realize that there is a trade-off to that. There is
also a desire to get close to nature and have a peaceful walk on their
lunchtime. There are some walks around the city that have become very
popular for taking that little siesta.”

The boardwalk at Riverside Park in the Creston Neighborhood is the
most popular destination, with the Plaster Creek Trail and the nature
trails at Huff and Garfield Parks also popular getaways, Faber says. For
recreational walking and light to advanced hiking in general, there is a
huge list of local trails between the assets of the city parks
department and those of other local municipalities, the state parks and
other lands with public access such as the trails at Blandford,
Cannonsburg Ski Area and the natural areas maintained by the Land
Conservancy of West Michigan

“I love trails,” says Jay Steffen, Grand Rapids Director of Parks and
Recreation. “So many people can use them, whether you’re walking or
riding or pushing a stroller or rollerblading. They’re multipurpose and

One of the top priorities of the parks department is providing
greater access to several flagship trails and closing the gap between
them , Steffen says. One of the top concerns that emerged from Green
Grand Rapids was access to Kent Trails (connects Johnson, John Ball,
Douglas Walker and Millennium parks in a 15-mile trail from Grand Rapids
to Byron Township) and the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park
(connects 13 urban centers in a 92-mile stretch from Grand Rapids to

Thanks to grants from Michigan Department of Transportation and the Frey Foundation, the
Oxford Street Trail already under construction will
provide improved access to Kent Trails for the city’s southwest
quadrant, linking Oxford Street in the Black Hills neighborhood to
Wealthy Street near the John Ball Park trailhead. A pending $850,000
grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund could lead to the
long-awaited acquisition of an abandoned railway that stretches along
the eastern bank of the Grand River between Ann and Leonard streets, the
missing link between Sixth Street Park downtown and Riverside Park,
which feeds into the White Pine Trail through the North Park bridge.

West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition Executive Director
Sharon Nunnelee explains that the success of trails such as the White
Pine, which passes behind dozens of backyards and developments between
Grand Rapids and Rockford alone, has made additional investment less

Communities are fighting hard for trail investment and are finding
tangible economic benefits from the traffic. Cyclists have become an
important market for shops and restaurants in downtown Rockford with
frontage on the White Pine. The Country Dairy Farm Store in New Era is a premiere
destination for cyclists on the Hart-Montague Trail, soon to be
connected to Muskegon via Berry Junction. Coalition members in Muskegon
report consistently high numbers of Wisconsin cyclists coming off the
ferry to tour West Michigan trails. And according to the National Association of Realtors, trail access has
ranked second only to highway access in importance of community
amenities to home buyers, well ahead of sidewalks, playgrounds, lakes,
public transportation or other amenities.

“The trails are excellent for economic development, and we should do
more as a region to take advantage of that,” says Nunnelee.

Some Like It Rough
May 15 was the Grand Opening
of the Grand Rapids
Bike Park
, a park with a pump track and a two-mile mountain bike and
hiking path at 580 Kirtland in Grand Rapids near Burton Street and
US-131. It is the only public pump track course in West Michigan and the
only legal single-track mountain biking course in the city.

The typical mountain biker seeks trails with more challenging terrain
and a more natural setting. He or she is looking for dirt and steep
slopes, with twists and turns that make leisure cyclists flinch. There
are significant single-track assets outside of Grand Rapids, including
popular mountain bike trails in Cannonsburg, Rockford and Middleville.
But it’s unique to have a true mountain biking experience within an
urban center.

“Having this type of access is huge,” says Jason Dew, 35, a Wyoming
dentist and president of the Western Chapter of the Michigan Mountain Biking
, which partnered with the city to build the Bike Park.
“In the long term this is the type of thing that attracts people to a
region—the type of young, talented individuals that fuel-economic
growth. The people who tend to be movers and shakers also tend to have

Daniel Schoonmaker is a freelance writer in Grand Rapids. Among other
things, he formerly was managing editor for Rapid Growth Media.

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