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How has the Root River Trail System affected hamlets along its path?

Some say the 60-mile bike path’s effects on business in southeastern Minnesota have surprised the trail’s proponents and opponents alike.

Detail of a map of the Root River Trail System
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

HOUSTON, Minnesota – The impacts of the Root River Trail System on the communities along it resemble the paved path itself: turns that veer one way, then another.

“It hasn’t been the economic savior people were dreaming about,” said Dick Nethercut, a lawyer based in Harmony who negotiated with area farmers during the 1980s to acquire land for the trail. “Expectations are always too high for something like that.”

And some say the 60-mile bike path’s effects on business in southeastern Minnesota have surprised the trail’s proponents and opponents alike.

Perhaps it’s failed to transform every river hamlet into another Lanesboro, drawing flocks of tourists to their streets. And agriculture remains the core enterprise in these parts. But attractions like the Houston Nature Center, new B&Bs and a Whalan pie shop lure out-of-town trail users. A 2010 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) report termed the trail “one of the key attractors of tourists to the area” and also concluded that local folks’ use of the path “grew over time.” 

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During the summer of 2009, the path generated about $2.3 million from those who used it, the DNR report said. While overall use of the trail since the mid-1990s has declined 38 percent — to about 112,000 user hours in 2009 from roughly 179,000 in 1997, according to the report – homegrown residents such as Nethercutt’s newest legal colleague, Greg Schieber, are riding it more often.

“I just moved to Canton, about 5 miles from the trailhead,” said Schieber, 28, who grew up in Caledonia, about a half-hour east of Harmony. “I plan to ride the trail twice a week after work.”

Schieber is exactly the type of person Preston farmer John Snyder, 61, described as being critical to solidifying the his region’s economy.

“What makes communities work are the people who live here,” said Snyder, who won a court battle earlier this year against the city of Preston, which tried to seize about two and half acres of his land to expand the River Root Trail System. “You got to put people to work and create jobs. Those are the people who are going to spend money here.”

Snyder emphasized that he has “got nothing against bike trails.” Tourist dollars are beneficial, he said. “Anytime you can bring money in, it’s good,” said Snyder, who raises beef cows and grows corn, hay and soybeans on 200 acres of land that’s been in his family for more than 60 years. “I just don’t think you should put all your eggs in one basket.”

Nethercut agreed. Any economy overly reliant on tourism is inherently fragile, he pointed out. Bad weather, for example, may prevent cyclists from touring the trail. Without their dollars filling shop owners’ tills, small towns can be on the edge, he said.

Plan first floated in early ‘80s

The idea of running a recreational trail through arable land outraged farmers when state officials floated the proposal during the early 1980s, said Craig Blommer, a Parks and Trails Area supervisor for the DNR. Residents and officials of towns from Lanesboro to Rushford weren’t enthusiastic either, Blommer said.

“Landowners felt they should get the land, and most of the towns along the corridor didn’t want anything to do with a public trail coming into town,” Blommer said. “Many thought it was just a poor use of state dollars. There were dire predictions of increased crime, litter and limited use.”

Nevertheless, the state bought 49 miles of an abandoned rail bed in 1981 for $975,000. The 14 miles closest to Austin became protected under a state program that preserves rare resources. The other 35 miles became the Root River Trail.

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Development began in 1985. Workers completed the project in 1988. It cost $2 million in state bonds, Blommer said.

Extensions to Harmony and Houston

In the 1990s, state officials extended the trail for $6 million in bonding money. By 2000, the trail reached Harmony to the south, Preston and Fountain to the west and Houston to the east.

People’s earlier concerns about the trail “never came about,” Blommer said.

Houston City Councilman Matt Schutte judges the soapbox derby competition
MinnPost photo by Mike Cronin
Houston City Councilman Matt Schutte judges the soapbox derby competition several blocks south of the Root River Trail.

Former state Sen. Duane Benson, a Republican farmer from Lanesboro, had disagreed with the trail plans so strongly that he campaigned against them while running for office.

“No one had experience with a bicycle trail back then,” said Benson, who served in the Senate from 1981 to 1994. “It was really the abyss of the unknown. We thought we were inviting people to come right down to the middle of our property.”

Today, he understands those fears were unfounded.

“We get the type of tourists that anyone would like to have,” Benson said. “They don’t even leave a gum wrapper behind.”

Businesses cater to cyclists

Elizabeth Vaught prepares to bike back to Fountain
MinnPost photo by Mike Cronin
Elizabeth Vaught prepares to bike back to
Fountain from the Root River Trailhead in
Houston.

Once they bike the trail, many of the path’s visitors say they’ll be back.

Elizabeth Vaught, 35, a Burnsville elementary school principal from Minneapolis, said she plans to return after cycling almost 100 miles on the route last weekend.

“It’s really well maintained, with clear mile markers to let you know where you are,” Vaught said, perched atop her bicycle outside the Houston Nature Center. “And there are tons of businesses along the trail that cater to bikers – outfitters, ice cream shops, pie shops.”

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One pie place in particular has become a kind of state treasure: Maggie Gergen’s Aroma Pie Shop, which she bought 10 years ago. The confectionary in Whalan – population less than 70 – sits just yards from the Root River Trail.

Becky Talle eats a piece of Elvis Peanut Butter Pie at Whalan's Aroma Pie Shop.
MinnPost photo by Mike Cronin
Becky Talle eats a piece of Elvis Peanut Butter
Pie at Whalan’s Aroma Pie Shop.

Dozens of empty road bikes, recumbent bikes and mountain bikes lined a patch of grass last week between the path and the street. Their owners queued up inside at the counter and sat outside sitting at picnic tables or on the grass eating. A few lucky ones, such as Becky Talle, 34, snagged a seat on the enclosed porch. The Eagle Lake kindergarten teacher is on the trail for the second time in three years and was enjoying a piece of Elvis Peanut Butter Pie.

“Just being in nature, the great outdoors – with no bugs,” Talle said between bites as the reason she wanted to ride the route again.

Repeat customers, aka tourists, are key to small towns without industry, said Matt Schutte, a city councilman in Houston, which has a population of less than 1,000.

“We’re always looking for ways to improve the economy,” Schutte said last week while judging a soapbox-derby competition during his town’s annual Houston Hoedown festival.

Destination: Houston Nature Center

The River Root Trail enabled the construction of the Houston Nature Center, said Karla Bloem, the center’s director. And that provided the impetus for the creation of an annual International Festival of Owls, “which attracts the top owl people on the planet,” Bloem said. “There’s no other owl-festival weekend like it.”

Karla Bloem, director of the Houston Nature Center, and Alice the owl
MinnPost photo by Mike Cronin
Karla Bloem, director of the Houston Nature Center, and Alice, a 16-year-old great horned owl, stand at the beginning — or the end, depending on which direction one’s traveling — of the Root River Trail in southeastern Minnesota.

Houston and the surrounding area boast “owls everywhere,” states a center brochure that outlines plans to build an International Owl Center at the River Root Trail’s eastern terminus. One of those owls, Alice, a 16-year-old great horned owl, may be seen every day with Bloem, whom Alice believes is her mate, Bloem said.

Other draws: tubing, Amish country and Niagara Cave

But it remains difficult to identify with precision what local attractions spark tourist visits, said Benson, the former state senator.

“The trail is part of it, but by no means is that the sole reason tourism thrives here,” Benson said, ticking off tubing and canoeing on the Root River, tours of Amish country and Niagara Cave, south of Harmony, as other regional draws.

Beyond that, reminds Rep. Greg Davids, a Preston Republican, tourism is seasonal. He’s pleased that hotels and B&Bs have mushroomed in the tiny trail towns; decades ago Davids couldn’t imagine businesses like that existing.

Still, “agriculture is where it’s at,” David’s said, leaving no doubt what drives his region’s economy. “If agriculture is booming, the small towns are booming. If the price of milk and soybeans are down, there’s going to be trouble. If farmers can’t buy hardware, then it’s hard for the hardware stores to stay open.”

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Mark Bishop, proprietor of Niagara Cave, works behind the counter
MinnPost photo by Mike Cronin
Mark Bishop, proprietor of Niagara Cave, works behind the counter from the store that serves both as gift shop and entrance to the tourist attraction south of Harmony.