Plans underway to promote trails in Berrien County

Published 8:14 am Wednesday, January 19, 2022

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SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Niles and Buchanan area residents know all about the value of trails in attracting business and people as well as promoting health and safety. The Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail and the McCoy’s Creek Trail have been available for people to enjoy for several years.

County leaders got the chance to learn more about those trails and ones in other parts of the county from Southwest Michigan Planning Commission Senior Planner Marcy Hamilton last week. She also reported on the current effort underway by Friends of Berrien County Trails to develop a master plan to promote trails throughout the county.

In Buchanan, local leaders are pushing to extend the McCoy’s Creek Trail northeast across the St. Joseph River to the River St. Joe Brewery and then farther to connect up with the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail. The trail currently runs from southwest to northeast through the city of Buchanan, ending at Schirmer Parkway.

Hamilton reported that the McCoy’s Creek Trail project has gotten commitments of funds from private sources including AEP and the Michigan Gateway Foundation as well as the Michigan Department of Transportation. City leaders plan to apply for a Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant this spring to complete the funding needed to extend the trail.

Buchanan Chamber Executive Director/Main Street Manager Ashley Regal said this week that the Buchanan City Commission will start acting related to the trail project next week. Commissioners are expected to approve a new recreation master plan for the city next Monday. That plan has to be in place by Feb. 1 in order for the city to apply for grants.

Regal said the next step after that will be to apply for a $300,000 Natural Resources Trust Fund grant by April 1. If that grant is awarded, the earliest work could start on extending the trail a half-mile across the river and next to Walton Road would be sometime in the second half of 2023.

Current estimates put the cost of the project at $622,000, with $300,000 coming from the trust fund, $131,000 from MDOT and $191,000 from local sources, she said.

Regal said the hope is that extending the trail across the river and out to River St. Joe will provide people with more access to public areas along the river as well as a destination point at the brewery and nearby Flatwater Farms.

“Proponents believe that this important connection will result in more trail users,” she said.

She said the trust fund grant application states the project “will be a catalyst to spur other economic and quality of life benefits and opportunities.”

“The McCoy’s Creek Trail Extension Project essentially elevates the existing trail into ‘Cultural Trail Status’ and creates a ‘Walkable Treasure Trove’ that will be of regional significance,” the application concludes.

Having trails connect to destinations is a big part of trail development, Hamilton said this week in a phone interview with Leader Publications.

“We don’t want to have trails to nowhere,” she said. “We want trails that connect to destinations.”

Hamilton noted that the long-term goal is to connect McCoy’s Creek Trail to the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail as it extends north from Niles to Berrien Springs. There is also the possibility of connecting the trail with the proposed new State Game Area set to be established along the St. Joseph River in Buchanan and Berrien Townships.

The work already done on the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail is one of the county’s major trail attractions, she said. The trail currently starts in Mishawaka and then goes through South Bend before going north into Michigan and ending at the northern city limits of Niles.

She said work is ongoing on extending the trail to Berrien Springs. The focus is on finding the best route for the trail whether it’s along M-139 or on old rights-of-way before applying for grants. Once the route is established, the trail will likely end at Range Line Park in Berrien Township and then cross Lake Chapin via a pedestrian bridge.

Berrien County Commissioner Jim Curran represents Niles Township on the county board. He said the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail will eventually connect the South Bend area to the Lake Michigan shoreline and points beyond. He’s also looking forward to the fruition of plans calling for trails to connect the various county parks.

“There will be other trails that will connect to the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail so eventually someone from Niles could take a trail to a number of different destinations,” he said. “All of these trails now and when the extensions are complete will allow the residents of Niles to take a trail into areas you can’t see from the road.”

“I think the trails give the residents of Niles the opportunity to see the beautiful countryside and allow them to use the trails to get some exercise,” he added. “The development of the trails is a priority for the county and we help out with design and funding when available. The Berrien County Parks and Road Departments are very much involved with all trail projects in the county.”

One part of the existing Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail in southern Niles Township will be getting an update thanks to a Natural Resources Trust Fund grant scheduled to be awarded this spring.

Niles Township is getting $124,600 to develop a trailhead at Ontario Road for the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail. The township will be developing a 1.5-acre parcel that borders the trail in that area. The trail running from Mishawaka through South Bend to Niles was completed in 2019. It would be the first trailhead facility between South Bend and Niles.

Although not connected to the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail, the city of Niles will be getting $232,800 to develop a boat launch and related parking at the Niles Dam Park along the Dowagiac River. This is the first phase of the redevelopment of the park which is a popular fishing destination and also connects to the Dowagiac River Water Trail.

At 7 p.m. Monday, the city of Buchanan will host a meeting at City Hall to approve the Buchanan Community Recreation Plan.  Buchanan Township officials said the meeting would be a joint effort between the city and township.