Could the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail stretch farther?

Published 9:27 am Thursday, May 9, 2019

NILES — With construction on a portion of Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail beginning this week, some local leaders are already looking at the bigger picture.

On Tuesday, Be Healthy Berrien partnered with the Berrien County Health Department and Southwest Michigan Planning Commission to share a proposed plan to continue the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail from Niles to Berrien Springs. The path would pick up near Plym Park and stretch 9 miles to Rangeline Park in Berrien Township.

More than 50 people packed a room at the Niles-Buchanan YMCA to participate in an open house. They were invited to share feedback with volunteers from the Trail Stakeholder Group about their use for the trail and thoughts on the extension.

Kristopher Martin, an associate planner with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, explained that Be Healthy Berrien acquired a grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to use for a planning phase of the project.

With the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail under construction and scheduled to connect to Indiana’s trail, Martin said it seemed like the right time to think about a larger potential for the project.

“Our goal is to say, ‘we’ve got the momentum. We’ve got this really cool trail system. Where do we go from here?’” Martin said. “This route could theoretically connect us to Berrien Springs, Andrews University. For students and visitors alike, it would be a great resource.”

Martin emphasized that a local pathway can provide numerous benefits to the cities it connects.

“It really helps retain a sense of community,” Martin said. “It attracts businesses, families, provides a safe way to recreate. It really helps to increase property values and allows for people to travel safely.”

Additionally, he said a path like the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail provides a place for people to exercise and could promote tourism. 

“It could help a wide range of users, as you can see,” Martin said, “from families to school children to people commuting to someone wanting to get out for a walk to observe nature.”

The trail could be part of a “rails to trails” transformation. Martin said much of the proposed path follows a former interurban rail route.   

“That could potentially help us here,” Martin said. “There’s actually still railroad beds, and if you go out [of the YMCA], you can see where it crosses the Dowagiac River.”

The rail line is owned by Indiana Michigan Power — a member of the trail project’s stakeholder committee.

“That’s what makes it somewhat feasible. A lot of the route seems to be municipal owned,” Martin said. “Indiana Michigan Power has been a project partner in the past for the segments in Niles Township, and they are interested in being a partner going forward, too.”

Pillars from the rail line can be seen on Lake Chapin. Martin said project officials would conduct a test to see if the pillars are still structurally sound.

At this time Martin said he does not have an official cost for the proposed trail extension. He said some initial estimates approximate that it would cost half a million to a million dollars per mile to create. If the project goes forward, he said officials would look at grant opportunities and local communities could help to support the project with matching funds.

“We are really excited about this effort, helping to improve the area and make it a better place for everybody,” Martin said.