MU Extension study shows potential economic impact of Rock Island trail development along rail corridor

Roxie Murphy, Staff Writer
Posted 4/3/19

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., (MoRIT) supporters heard positive feedback from Pat Curry, author of the “Rock Island Trail Opportunity Analysis” at the annual …

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MU Extension study shows potential economic impact of Rock Island trail development along rail corridor

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JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., (MoRIT) supporters heard positive feedback from Pat Curry, author of the “Rock Island Trail Opportunity Analysis” at the annual March 28 meeting, but Missouri State Parks (MSP) Deputy Director Mike Sutherland continues to deliver warnings about the state’s ability to support the endeavor.

“It’s a no brainer to accept the trail,” Curry told a group of 50 or more trail supporters present from Owensville, Belle, Eldon, Jefferson City, Cook County and Windsor to name a few.

MoRIT Executive Director Greg Harris hired Curry, who works for the University of Missouri Extension, to do a third-party analysis of the impact the 144-miles of Rock Island Trail could have on more than 30 communities that it runs through.

“I have seen the transformative impact trails can have on communities,” Curry said. “Trail-based operations drives more outdoor activities than anything else.”

Harris told the group of supporters that after the Oct. 29-31 town hall meetings that provided a cost analysis and not an economic impact, he felt only one side to the picture was being presented.

Curry said he read through 1,875 comments from the October 2018 town hall meetings during his research for the economic analysis.

“About 98.6 percent of the comments were overwhelmingly positive,” Curry reported back.

In his presentation, Curry showed a map of Missouri that outlined 13 of Missouri’s 23 counties in red.

“Every red county shown has not returned to 2007 levels on employment or population,” Curry reported.

According to his study, there are 39,000 workers within a 10-mile buffer of the trail, but only 23,100 jobs, which forces nearly 16,000 workers to commute. The only incorporated city to see population growth out of the 16 possible places  between 2010 and 2017 was Eldon at 1.2 percent, far below the state average of 2.1 percent and national average of 5.5 percent.

Gasconade County and Maries County were both in the red. Local employment loss included Belle at negative 10.2 percent, Owensville at negative 4.9 percent and Rosebud at negative 25.7 percent. 

Cities that showed an increase in employment included Meta at 48.4 percent, Bland at 20.4 percent and Gerald at 24.9 percent.

“When I think about what a trail could do, I think about these red counties turning blue,” Curry said.

Curry said there is a misleading idea that rural areas have unlimited access to outdoor activities, and that is not true. That would change with the Rock Island Trail, but its success should the state choose to accept it will be due to large community engagement.

“Missouri will be unique in having trails that are inviting,” Curry said. “The state will find themselves in a unique position. The price is right and time is on our side.”

Warren Wood, Ameren Missouri’s vice president, external affairs and communications, addressed supporters by saying the company had been approached with a variety of ideas for the trail. Those included people who wanted to buy some, but not all of the land; but then Harris had contacted him and asked if MoRIT could bring letters to them from people who supported a trail.

“We can look at the Katy (Trail) and see what an amazing opportunity this is,” Wood said.

Wood informed supporters about two trail funding bills — Senate Bill No. 473 and House Bill 1044 — that would allow the Rock Island Trail State Park and create an endowment fund.

“It creates a measure,” Wood said about the bills. “That funds donated for that project may only be used for that purpose and would provide a 501(c)3 instead of a state endowment.”

But as far a general revenue being proposed, “ Wood said. “We won’t get money this session, not the next, and maybe not the next.”

Sutherland spoke on behalf of MSP, and said he wished Curry had not mentioned in the last part of his address that accepting the former Rock Island Line was a “no brainer.”

“Except for the $65 to $85 million dollars to work and maintain it,” Sutherland said. “We have a responsibility to assist and we have to figure out how that project fits.”

While Sutherland said no one at MSP has ever denied the benefits of trails, the issue is the $65 to $85 million to build and maintain them.

“At times it has looked pessimistic,” Sutherland said. “This year we have more to make up than ever before.”

Sutherland mentioned the extension MSP was granted from the Surface Transportation Board (STB) from Feb. 21 to Aug. 20, when the state will have to make a decision if they are going to accept Ameren’s gift of the trail.

“If the corridor is accepted, it will take both private and public partnerships,” Sutherland said. “It seems there is a willingness to have support.”

Sutherland stressed the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, the oversight department for MSP, has not come to a decision to accept the trail.

“But we hope to come to an agreement where information may be expressed,” he said. “If an agreement is signed, it will only be the beginning.”

MoRIT President Rick Peth asked Sutherland where MSP was with naming rights.

“There is no rule,” Sutherland said. “It is not unusual for someone who makes a big donation to the system to have something named after them.”

Sutherland said if the corridor is accepted — which it has not been yet — they are not afraid to look at things creatively. “One thing is for sure, it will be different from the Katy Trail,” Sutherland said.

Curry finished his presentation by saying the, “grassroots movement of the Rock Island Trail is a righteous cause.”

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