On September 16, with Festival of the Forks in full swing half a mile away, the city of Albion and Albion College unveiled a new 1.2 mile expansion of the Albion River Trail.
Picking up where the trail lets off in Victory Park, users can take the trail across Albion Road, up (and down) rolling hills, around the edge of the Held Equestrian Center, into a forest and out into the dirt path of the historic Riverside Cemetery.
The unveiling marked a two-year project between the city, the college and the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance (CCTA), with close to $420,000 in state and regional grant awards to fund it.
The expansion connects to the original Albion River Trail, which goes through Victory Park, Stoffer Plaza, across the Kalamazoo River, past three parks and ends at Harris Field in the north end of town.
The city of Albion not only opened a new trailway for Albion but opened itself up as a major trailway hub for Michigan and the nation.
Crossroads of a national system
The Albion River Trail is cemented into one county-long trail system, two state-long trail systems and one national trail system, collectively spanning over 6,000 miles.
Since 2006, the CCTA, part of Calhoun County’s Parks department, has sought to connect the county through the Calhoun County Trailway. The proposed 51-mile system would connect Homer, Albion, Marshall, Battle Creek and the numerous townships in between.
The Calhoun County Trailway is still in the process of being completed, but Albion’s own system could become a part of the trailway. Once completed, the Calhoun County Trailway will hook up onto the Falling Water Trail of Jackson County and the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail of Kalamazoo County.
The Calhoun County Trailway will eventually link to the North Country Trail, the second crossroads of the Albion River Trail. Once completed, the North Country Trail will span 4,600 miles, from North Dakota to New York. The trail will wind itself through the Upper Peninsula and down West Michigan, eventually leading to Ohio.
Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail, connecting Belle Isle in Detroit to Ironwood in the U.P., is made up of two routes, each incorporating a portion of the existing North Country Trail. The first is an 800-mile bike trail that follows the Lower Peninsula’s east side. The other is a nearly 1,300-mile long hiking route which follows the west side of the state down, going through Albion.
Once the routes are finished, the Iron Belle will be the longest designated state trail in the nation. Right now, each trail is just shy of 70 percent completion.
Rounding out the crossroads of Albion is the Great Lake-to-Lake Trail. The route will connect Port Huron (and Lake Huron) of the Thumb area to South Haven (and Lake Michigan) of wine country. In between will be 240 miles of trail and numerous tourist destinations. It is scheduled for completion in 2019. The annual Michigander Bike Tour will follow the trail that year.
Large trailways’ impacts hit close to home
To Gregg Strand, CCTA board member and director of corporate and foundation relations at Albion College, the idea to expand the Albion River Trail was at the right place — the hub of four trailway systems — at the right time.
The city of Albion was able to secure a nearly $300,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ trust fund. Further funding came from the Albion Community Foundation and a fund created by oil company Enbridge after its Kalamazoo oil spill.
Prior to coming to Albion, Strand worked with numerous environmental agencies, including the MDNR. He wrote all the successful grant applications for the city project.
It helped, too, that the Albion River Trail had the support of State Senator Mike Noffs and State Representative John Bizone. Governor Rick Snyder has also expressed his support in connecting Michigan’s trailways.
Then there was Albion College. As the trail expansion was gaining traction in 2015, the college was welcoming in its 16th president, Mauri Ditzler, who emphasized the relationship between college and community. Ditzler and the administration provided initial funding while grants rolled in and support in the designing and constructing of the route.
To Strand, this meant getting “a piece [of a trail system] in Albion so we can basically guarantee that when the larger regional trail network gets established, or continues to get established, that Albion’s going to be a piece of that.”
Why such an emphasis on trail systems? For Governor Snyder, travel along the trail systems means increased economic activity at the stops along the way, healthier citizens, the enjoyment of nature a way to connect communities and less transportation pollution. Danielle Nelson, ‘17, project manager for the Albion Economic Development Corporation, had similar thoughts. As a city intern in 2015, Nelson was one of the masterminds behind the project, its organization and its completion.
In the late winter of 2015, city manager Sheryl Mitchell asked for Nelson’s help in ways to improve recreational amenities, specifically biking – Mitchell loved the idea of the Slow Roll bike group in Detroit. Nelson’s idea was the trail expansion. She had noticed that people following the major state and national trail routes were flowing through Albion already.
By April, Nelson, Strand and the city had applied for the MDNR’s grant. By fall, construction plans were announced.
“Having safe and accessible locations for exercise is a huge asset to your community…It’s getting people more options because you’re pretty limited when it comes exercise options in the city, unless you belong to a gym or like running,” Nelson said.
Trailblazing a future
The future of Albion River Trail does not dead-end at Riverside Cemetery. Nelson laid out three plans the city hopes to make realities.
First is creating better signage for the middle part of the River Trail, extending from Stoffer Plaza to where the trail first cuts across the river. This section is not a clear cement route but a series of signs along sidewalks. Once construction on Superior Street concludes, the route will be less confusing, Nelson said.
Second is to use another MDNR grant to take the trail from the bridge across the river on Albion Street and create a fork to Austin Avenue along the west side of town. This way, safer, more accessible routes for people of all ages and abilities can go from one end of town to another.
“Albion Street is not the most attractive route,” said Nelson. “It’s got a lot of blighted industrial buildings, so it would be nice to clean that up with the trail. You start off with that and then it’s like ‘build it and they will come.’ When you have something like [the trail], you get more foot traffic and eyes on some of these eyesores, and it leads to change a little bit quicker.”
This extension would bring the trail to Albion’s city limits, allowing for the CCTA to cover the space between the city and neighboring Marshall.
Third is to obtain a land acquisition grant through the MDNR for the 62-acre space between the trail and the equestrian center, Nelson said. A larger trailhead, campsites and RV parking will be built upon it, open for anyone. Economic activity and public enjoyment will be boosted while also supplementing the equestrian center itself. Upwards of five people, with an RV, are needed to care for rider and horse, but lodging is limited for in the Albion area. If the college wants to host large events, it will need this kind of space.
While these steps may not be completed for another few years, the work that has been done paved the way for Albion to be a stopping point on numerous trails.
Photos by Beau Brockett Jr.