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West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition: The tale behind the trails

Tom Anderson

Over the past few months, Rapid Growth has explored some of West Michigan's trails and the people behind them. One organization, the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC), plays a vital role, assisting towns and cities in creating, connecting or renovating their unique trails. Planning to enjoy a trail this weekend? Find out who made your favorite stretch possible.
Over the past few months, Rapid Growth has explored some of West Michigan's trails and the people behind these sometimes decades-long projects. Though millions enjoy the networks of trails that crisscross the state, few understand the effort required to undertake a trail project or the many helpful hands necessary to guide the trail from inception to completion. One organization, the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC), plays a vital role, assisting towns and cities in creating, connecting or renovating their unique trails. Through relationship building, education, grant writing and other fundraising assistance, the WMTGC plays a vital role in the region's many trails and, even more, in its communities.
 
Since becoming chair of the Muskegon Lakeshore Trail in 1972, Tom Anderson, biking enthusiast and owner of Muskegon's The Bicycle Rack, has had a passion for trails and their active users. For years, Anderson had maintained a relationship with fellow trails' friends groups and, in 2000, a few stopped into his shop with an idea to form an official group for the region. When asked to serve on the board of this loose organization of friends and colleagues, Anderson jumped at the opportunity. "I never learned to say no," he says jokingly.

Another original board member (and current board President) Dennis Kneibel looks back fondly on the WMTGC's ambitious start over fifteen years ago. After an initial discussion with a few fellow trail enthusiasts, he dove head first into the organization. "The next meeting I was advised I was on the board," he laughs.
 
After five years, this budding group received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation and hired its first executive director, their only paid administrator. Shortly after that, in 2006, WMTGC conducted its first capital campaign, raising $6.5 million for trails in West Michigan, $3 million of which they received from the Fred Meijer Foundation. "That was probably the biggest accomplishment," says Kneibel.

Dennis Kneibel, courtesy photo.The funds the board raised – and continues to raise – support their goal of connecting the vast trail networks of West Michigan. "I think it's just a lot of us trying to help our own back yards," says Anderson. "The back yard is just the whole of West Michigan." To aid in the development of these "back yard" spaces, WMTGC does not own, maintain or design state trails. However, says Anderson, they are the "catalyst to help communities do just that."
 
Through facilitating relationships between neighboring cities, connecting those cities with designers and engineers and assisting them in writing and applying for grants, WMTGC helps trail-desiring communities envision and build their trail. This includes assisting in navigating the sometimes tricky paths of fundraising and garnering public support. "We're sort of the cheerleader," says Kneibel.

The necessity of winning over each community is particularly important because many state grants require a match of funds from each town or city. Though in the beginning, Anderson and Kneibel experienced a fair amount of "not in my backyard" sentiment about trail development, many of those community members have since changed their minds, discovering that the trail adds value and attracts visitors and families to their towns. They found this particularly true of the community members residing around the William Field Memorial Hart-Montague Trail, Michigan's first paved rail trail. After facing initial resistance for this 22-mile stretch from Hart, through Mears, Shelby, New Era, Rothbury and Montague, residents were later thankful for the project. "Trails are draws," says Anderson.

To assist in increasing positive trail reception, WMTGC often hosts workshops and education for community groups designed to make information available about a trail's benefit to a community. In 2002, the board participated in a statewide meeting at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, hosted by the Michigan Trails & Greenways Alliance (MTGA). This event aided in educating the community about its trails and forwarded the mission of positive trail building throughout the state. "I think that helped a lot," says Kneibel. By working with the MTGA on various projects throughout the years, WMTGC continued this fruitful networking and later, in 2010 and 2011, WMTGC hosted its own meetings with smaller West Michigan groups.

WMTGC BoardOver the years, WMTGC has assisted in dozens of trail projects, including those in Walker, Fruitport Township, Georgetown, Reeds Lake and Ottawa County, and they continue to labor on projects throughout the region. "We started out with only four or five counties," says Kneibel. Now, WMTGC has now served nineteen counties in the West Michigan region. Though many issues play a role in the work the board members have accomplished throughout the years, they maintain their original goal of creating entertaining, family-friendly, outdoor spaces. "Trails are a safe haven for families," says Kneibel. "You feel a lot safer on the trail."

After fifteen years, countless trails, a variety of board members and four executive directors, WMTGC continues to labor tirelessly to bring trails to West Michigan and connect the existing trails in a smooth network. Now with over 1000 members, WMTGC is always looking for trail advocates to join the expanding organization and further the mission of exercise, safe spaces and healthy communities.

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.
 
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.
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