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At the Crossroads of Rail, Highways, and Trails

by Miriam | January 3, 2022

Found at the crossroads of rail, highways, and trails, the historic Village of Kalkaska has been on a six-year community development journey. Rotary Charities has provided support at many critical junctures, most recently with a $50,000 Assets for Thriving Communities grant that will support a collaborative effort with the North Country Trail and other partners to re-route the North Country Trail and create a non-motorized accessible trailhead and boardwalk along the Boardman River. The project is an integral part of the DDA’s long-term focus to connect area non-motorized trails to the Downtown District, providing an asset to trail hikers and nature enthusiasts of all abilities and bringing economic activity to the downtown area.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Cash Cook, Director of the Kalkaska Downtown Development Authority.

In 2016, the Kalkaska DDA hired consultants to assess the community’s needs and identify economic development opportunities in a concerted effort to revitalize the Northern Michigan lumber town. This work resulted in the Kalkaska Community Strategic Plan, a document that prioritizes prospective projects under six pillars.

1.pngRailroad Square, a vibrant community center that hosts farmers markets and events and boasts a commercial kitchen, restroom facilities, and electronic information signage, was identified as a key milestone along the path to revitalization. “We’ve now checked that box,” said Cook. In 2016, the DDA was awarded a $10,000 Seed Grant for the purpose of establishing a Site Development Plan, and in 2017 a $75,000 Capital grant allowed for Phase 1 of the project to move forward. More on Railroad Square

The Strategic Plan cited the economic impact that recreational tourism, bicycling in particular, can have on communities that work to be more welcoming of these visitors. According to the Michigan Municipal League, a 2014 MDOT study found that bicycling had a total annual impact of $668 million on the Michigan economy, noting that communities that provide amenities to these visitors have a greater chance at capturing those dollars. Thus, investing in Kalkaska’s reputation as a “Trail Town” became a pillar of the plan.

But bikers aren’t the only outdoor enthusiasts Kalkaska is hoping to attract. Intrepid sectional and thru-hikers look for the assets that they need to provision themselves en route the North Country Trail (NCT). The 4,700-mile trail spans eight states from North Dakota to Vermont, with nearly 1,150 miles of trail winding through Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. When planning their trips, hikers look for towns that offer oasis from the wilderness, with trailheads within walking distance of a grocery store, outfitters, hotel, post office, bank, and healthcare. Having amenities that attract hikers of all levels, Kalkaska’s DDA has teamed up with regional and state organizations to change the way the hiking community looks at and uses the village.

Kalkaska had already been recognized as a Trail Town by the NCT, but with an almost 2 mile stretch of roadway between the former trail access and downtown, “it’s not optimal,” said Cook. “And this isn’t just for the benefit of visitors. We’re working to create an accessible waterfront asset and nature preserve unlike any other in Kalkaska. You go out there and you’d think you were in the middle of the wilderness.”

Together with the North Country Trail Association, Northern Michigan Mountain Biking Association, Grand Traverse Hiking Club, Kalkaska County Conservation District, Michigan DNR, the DDA is moving forward with plans to create a nonmotorized trailhead that will connect downtown Kalkaska to the trail. The first of two phases involved seeking approval of the DNR to re-route the trail from Guernsey Lake north to Kalkaska along the Boardman River, a process that took almost two years to complete. Once approved, GT Hiking Club volunteers did the on-the-ground work to improve the trail.

Phase two was slowed by COVID, but eventually the DDA purchased property along US-131, designating it as a new NCT trailhead. The property creates access to other nonmotorized trails and provides ample parking and meet-up space for groups like Norte’s Mountain Biking team and the GT Hiking Club. From the parking lot, hikers of all abilities will be able to access the trail, which will lead to a boardwalk and two bridges crossing the Boardman River. “This project checks all the boxes that the DNR looks for— accessible, connecting to existing assets of the North Country Trail and Iron Belle Trail System. And, recognizing that the majority of foot traffic comes from sectional hikers, having a place to park and hike a section is the highest use of the trail that we can provide,” said Cook.

The partnerships formed around the project will ensure its success. "A project like this is way beyond the capacity of the DDA. But when you partner with local and national organizations, you have the talent and wherewithal to see it through,” said Cook. The Grand Traverse Hiking Club’s trail design team spearheaded the work needed to move the trail and create an MOU with the NCT to maintain it. Kalkaska County Conservation District is eyeing educational signage along the trail, and the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy has offered expertise in designing the boardwalks and bridges through wetlands and over the river.

3.pngThe DDA has plans in place to seek additional funding for the project. “Many funders like to be the last dollars in,” said Cook. “The funding and continued support from Rotary Charities is truly important to be able to stack grants. We’re confident that being able to leverage the dollars and reputation of Rotary Charities will help us get to the approximately half a million dollars needed to complete the project.” Cook looks forward to the day the project is complete, and the village of Kalkaska will host its annual Trails Day Celebration in conjunction with the GT Hiking Club. The celebration, which included a picnic and long and short hikes along the trail, used to end along busy US-131. Now, the parking lot offers hikers a safe place to park, hike, and gather.

Cook reflected on the work of the DDA saying, "In one word, this work is fulfilling. To do something that has such long-term positive effects on our community - economically, vibrancy, wellness - is really the basis of our strategic plan. We asked, ‘What are we going to do to make this a better place for years to come?’ That really changes the way you look at things and approach projects."