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Making connections: Proposed interurban trail between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo takes a step ahead

Ray Antel

Trails make connections between small towns and cities, farmers' markets and breweries, state parks and campgrounds. Forged in dormant rail corridors, the majority of Michigan's recreational trails follow the paths spearheaded by their forefathers. But what happens when a corridor sits empty? How can an unused path become a final, polished trail? The Friends of the Interurban Trail are trying to complete a connection for a 40-mile stretch between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. Read on to see how their project has evolved.
Trails make connections between small towns and cities, farmers' markets and breweries, state parks and campgrounds. And these seamless connections are no accident. Forged in dormant rail corridors, the majority of Michigan's recreational trails follow the paths spearheaded by their forefathers. But what happens when a corridor sits empty? How can this vital connection become a final, polished trail? The Friends of the Interurban Trail (FIT), an organization cultivating support and funding for a 40-mile stretch between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, has labored for 10 years doing just that. Ray Antel, an avid runner and chair of the organization, explored the many joys and frustrations of the ongoing journey.

"I like to run every day," says Antel, a devoted jogger and Michigan trail user. Falling in love with long distance running and all things northern Michigan in high school, Antel went on to write regional poetry in college, and eventually chose teaching and coaching at the high school level. Spending much of his free time running and biking the state's trails, Antel noticed an opportunity right in his own backyard while living in Shelbyville ten years ago.
 
"The rail had been gone since the early 1900's," says Antel, of the empty rail corridor running from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids. A passionate trail user himself, Antel saw potential in the empty space for recreational use. Shortly thereafter in 2005, Antel received permission from former Mayor of Wayland Burrell Stein to form FIT, a committee designed to create support for, and research the possibility of, a trail connecting the two cities. Teaming up with Wayland Township, they split the costs of engineering and surveying the rail corridor by Williams & Works, an engineering consultation firm located in downtown Grand Rapids.

The survey revealed a 40 mile section that would connect to the Kal Haven Trail State Park and extend the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail north, ultimately stretching from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids and potentially connecting to the Kent and Fred Meijer M-6 Trails. Antel realized he'd love to be able to add the interurban trail to the larger Michigan trail network. Understanding the potential of this brand new trail, Antel and FIT spent the next few years searching for support and funding for the project.

In 2009, FIT met with the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC), which agreed to become its fiduciary. While the WMTGC agreed to assist with and hold funding through its 501(c)(3) status, they also soon became a helpful resource in garnering community support. In order to tap into the voice of the Wayland community in particular, FIT held a public meeting in 2012.

"It was really eye-opening," says Antel, who faced highly passionate comments, both positive and negative, from a crowd of over 80 people. Despite some disheartening feedback, FIT continued their work on the project, and slowly began changing minds over time.
 
"If they haven't already been impacted by a trail, they don't know the benefits it can bring," says Kati Santee, WMTGC executive director, who has also experienced mixed receptions to trail projects over the years.
 
With "no funding, only an idea," FIT's progress seemed slow and arduous, an experience Santee understands all too well. "With trails, there's so much patience and perseverance needed," she says. With a heart for seemingly impossible trail projects, Santee became involved with FIT and the Interurban trail in August 2014, suggesting and implementing monthly meetings in order to connect and inform the communities that would eventually be touched by the trail.

Though 10 years into the project, "there's no trail," says Antel, FIT consistently labors toward the end goal of 40 miles of completed trail. "There's opportunity, we just need to keep working our magic." As community support grows, FIT finds more opportunities for funding. "It's a back and forth venture," he says. Also experiencing their share of successes, FIT has received approval from Consumer's Energy, owner of the 100-ft.-wide rail corridor, to pursue funding for Phase I, a section just over one mile from Dahlia Ave. to 133rd Ave. in downtown Wayland.

This particular approval marks an important stepping stone in a 10-year journey, since this allows FIT to secure funding to break ground on the trail itself, and hopefully begin construction in late 2016 or early 2017, according to Wayland City Manager Michael Selden. But why begin in Wayland, and not in Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo? "The trail needs to start somewhere," says Selden, who also noted that the city of Wayland has been able to garner the most support, and thus is at the best point to begin the project within their city limits.

Above all, Antel, FIT and WMTGC seek to forward their "rails to trails" mission, providing safe, outdoor spaces for individuals and families to seek recreation and entertainment in Michigan's great outdoors. With a trail within walkable distance, West Michiganders between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids will no longer be faced with the question, "How quickly can I get out my door to get some exercise?" says Antel. As the project labors on, Antel maintains a passion for the goal set ten years ago: "All the work we put into this is real. It is going to pay off."
 
This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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