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New Path to Prosperity

Betsie Valley Trail revving up small-town economies

May 25, 2005 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Casey McKeel

Cleone McCreery says the Betsie Valley Trail is bringing bicyclists, snowmobilers, walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts to her store and other businesses in downtown Beulah.

BEULAH – Grainy black-and-white photos of trains and tourists line a wall of Ron and Cleone McCreery’s new sandwich shop and general store here, a yesteryear reflection of summertimes when rail brought thousands of people, and their dollars, to the shores of Crystal Lake. Today the rails are gone and people drive here. But the McCreerys are still banking on the old rail corridor to usher in new customers and commerce.

The difference is in how people arrive here now: By bicycle, rollerblade, skateboard, scooter, on foot, in a stroller, or even on a snowmobile. Every which way, they travel along the Betsie Valley Trail, a rail line turned trail way — or rail-trail, for short — that since the summer of 2003 has meandered west from here along Crystal Lake and the Betsie River to the twin towns of Elberta and Frankfort, on Lake Michigan, about 10 miles away. The rail-trail’s supporters hope its other leg will be completed by late summer, adding another 13 miles through scenic forest and remote wetlands to Thompsonville, near Crystal Mountain resort, which is southeast of Beulah.

Aptly named the Betsie Trail Companion, the McCreery’s store is the first downtown spot in Beulah that trail users encounter when coming from the west. It opened a year ago where the local drugstore once stood and is perched directly across from the future site of the Beulah Trailhead and Visitor’s Center. Even with the trail’s eastern leg unfinished, the shopkeepers have had intermittent trickles and surges of clientele who’ve come by trail, and they’re eager for more business as the trail lengthens and the temperatures rise.

Local business people and state development experts say that the McCreerys’ business, whose name is partly drawn from the folksy, long-running Prairie Home Companion show on National Public Radio, is a prime example of the payoff communities can enjoy when they add smart, civic assets such as trails, parks, and other recreational options that brighten the overall quality of life. Already the half-finished trail is helping sell more sandwiches, move more bicycles from the local bike shop, fill more motel rooms, attract new recreational events, and increase property values along its route. By investing in the cleaner, greener economy it wants to have in the 21st century, the county is attracting plenty of new partners and patrons.

Trail Investment Pays Quick Dividends
“People arriving are thirsty. They’re hot. They have sore muscles. They have needs that they didn’t have when they started their trip,” said Mr. McCreery, who left a high-tech sales job in Traverse City to staff the store. “We hope to meet those needs and set a tone of hospitality in the downtown.”

Judging by the store’s offerings, most needs will be met. In a relatively compact space, the store offers a cornucopia of items and services: Gourmet sandwiches, homemade soup and baked goods, ice cream, sunblock, towels, Frisbees, free air for tires, and a tanning salon. There’s even a mortgage office in the back, Ms. McCreery’s sideline that helps the couple to make it through the off-season in Beulah, where she grew up.

Dozens of other Michigan communities and private enterprises have plotted the same prosperous path by developing and locating along rail-trails, according to Christine Vogt, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies trails and greenways. As an example, Ms. Vogt points to Alex’s Railside Restaurant in Sanford, along the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail in Midland County. The eatery’s front faces a road and its parking lot, while its rear borders the trail and welcomes passersby with a back dining patio and a walk-up window offering ice cream and drinks.

“Half the restaurant’s summer business is due to the trail,” Ms. Vogt said.  “That’s one of the ways that economic development happens with trails — it’s access. Just like with a highway, a trail can draw new or existing people into new areas of the community.”

Reputation and Real Estate Values Up
But its supporters say that the Betsie Valley Trail is doing more than attracting new spending and startups to the towns along its route. The rail-trail is helping Benzie County as a whole as it works to transform itself from a one-time logging and summer resort area to a four-season playground and retirement draw, which, in turn, should bring more jobs to the area.

“Our business here is not run-of-the-mill tourism, it’s recreation. You can ski, golf, swim, hike, and now you can use the trail,” said Bill Olsen, a retired surgeon who helped launch the trail advocacy campaign here in 1991 and hasn’t let up since then. “The best balance of trade you can have is visitors and retirees who make their money elsewhere and spend it here on restaurants, rentals, second homes, and so on.”

In Dr. Olsen’s parlance, Benzie County’s trade surplus has been rising steadily the last few years because of the Betsie Valley Trail. Suzy Voltz, a real estate broker at Sleeping Bear Realty in Frankfort, credits the trail with boosting the prices of adjacent properties by 6-10 percent, which, with some lakeside homes, translates to tens of thousands more dollars.

“We’ve sold three houses at a higher value because of access to the trail,” said Ms. Voltz, a founding board member, in 1993, of the Friends of the Betsie Valley Trail, along with Dr. Olsen. “In fact, one person bought it just for that reason.”

Her company served as the temporary headquarters for trail advocates in the early years, when the trail was just a dream. The firm’s property listings will note the proximity to the trail, when nearby, as a selling point. And she points out that Crystal Mountain, the local ski and golf mecca near the trail’s eastern begin-end point, touts the trail in brochures for its guests and property owners.

“Everybody loves to be on the trail; it’s adding real value,” said Ms. Voltz.

Trail-related Spending Soars
Sometimes the county’s steady economic gain from the trail surges like a lightning strike. That’s expected to be the case in early June, for instance, when some 250 people will arrive in Frankfort, Elberta’s sister city to the north across Betsie Bay, and pack the Harbor Lights Motel and Condominiums on Lake Michigan. They are “adventure racers,” 43 coed teams of four people and support crew, who will depart Frankfort at 7 a.m., Thursday, June 2, along the Betsie Valley Trail, and race for 225 miles or so across Lower Michigan to Lake Huron in about three days, according to Luke Osborn, a spokesman for race sponsor Infiterra Sports in Flint.

The first-ever Michigan Coast to Coast Adventure Race will include the Betsie Valley Trail in its route, and then continue with about 50 miles of trekking, some 55 miles of canoeing, at least 120 miles of mountain biking (sometimes at night), five to seven miles of pack rafting (that’s “pack” as in backpack!), and several sections of zipping across drop-offs in a harness suspended on fixed ropes. Getting lost is likely, because of strain, exhaustion, and the fact that racers will navigate off-road by map and compass only. The cutoff time for finishing is at noon on Sunday, June 5, at an undisclosed location on the state’s sunrise side; the winning team receives gear and $4,000 cash.

But before they get going, Mr. Osborn said, racers will sample Frankfort’s downtown restaurants, their support crew will stock up on last-minute supplies and gasoline, and perhaps they’ll watch the sunset over Lake Michigan before settling into their comfortable lakefront motel. That has Harbor Lights motel owner Steve Campbell pretty pumped up.

“We couldn’t be more excited about the race. We’ll be full midweek in early June, which has never happened,” said Mr. Campbell, adding that about 90 of Harbor Lights’ 108 rooms are already booked just for the race. “Our hope is that this is the beginning of a relationship with these folks and our business and with Frankfort in general.”      

A Racer and Retailer Benefits
One of the racers is local resident Tad Peacock, an athlete in his early 50s who is trying an adventure race for the first time, along with teammates Stephanie Randall and father-son duo Howard and Sean Herron. Mr. Peacock’s motivation: “I really enjoy the outdoors, and I really love competing and camaraderie. I think it’s going to be one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life and, because of that, one of the most satisfying.”

When he’s not mapping and muscling his way across the state, Mr. Peacock operates and co-owns Crystal Lake Adventure Sports, a company that has kayak-and-bicycle shops in both downtown Beulah and Frankfort, which happen to be key points on the trail. Mr. Peacock said that, after the trail first opened in mid-2003, his bicycle sales jumped almost 50 percent from a year prior and, while that sizzling pace has since cooled some, the demand for bike maintenance has stayed strong. And it’s not just from tourists, but also from locals who’ve rediscovered bicycling now that there’s a safe and scenic route nearby.

“The bottom line is it’s been great for bike business,” he said.

The Long and Winding Path Nears Completion.
It’s just the kind of windfall that Betsie Valley Trail promoters predicted from the beginning. They estimated that the trail would generate more than $1 million a year in direct consumer spending, such as at restaurants, and more than $2 million in indirect revenues, including people whose first contact with Benzie County is spurred by the trail and then return to spend time and money on other area amenities. Supporters hope eventually to convince the public to capitalize on that added value and establish a small, local property tax to fund trail sweeping and maintenance, according to Larry Burks, who chairs the Betsie Valley Trailway Management Council.

“My enthusiasm for the trail,” said Mr. Burks, a retired banker, “is that it not only brings more people to Benzie County in the shoulder seasons, but also does so in the wintertime because of the snowmobiling allowed between Beulah and Thompsonville, so it will reduce the seasonality and stabilize the economy some.”

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources owns the trail; Benzie County, through its trailway management council, is pledged to develop, operate, and maintain it. The Friends of the Betsie Valley Trail spearheads fundraising efforts, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to leverage nearly $2 million more in construction grants.

Benzie County’s planning documents since at least 1984 have called for establishment of such recreational trails. Opportunity arose a year later, when freight trains stopped plying the local portion of the Ann Arbor Railroad corridor. But a 1988 lawsuit brought by a few Crystal Lake residents near Beulah who claimed ownership of the rail corridor through their lakefront yards slowed progress. Settlement of the divisive lawsuit in 1996 included several compromises, including a crushed-stone trail surface in Beulah along Crystal Lake; the trail surface is paved the rest of the route to Elberta and Frankfort. The trail extension to Thompsonville also will use crushed limestone.

A Shining Up North Gem
The Betsie Valley Trail, and others like it around the state, set shining examples of how to enhance the quality of life in Michigan and its communities. These trails foreshadowed one of the findings by Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, a public-private council formed in early 2003 to study the causes and consequences of sprawl and recommend solutions. Specific to trails, it found that “the state should provide incentives … to develop and maintain trailways and to avoid the interruption of trailways vital to recreation and tourism interests,” and that it should “encourage a statewide linked system of trails and recreation.”

Mark Mandenberg, a state DNR non-motorized trail specialist in Lansing, said that new trail connections one day could bridge the 30-35 mile gap between the Betsie Valley Trail’s planned eastern end in Thompsonville and the White Pine Trail, which begins in Cadillac and meanders to Grand Rapids. He said the Betsie Valley Trail is unique in running along such a scenic stretch of open lakeshore.

“It’s a great trail that will leave a legacy for generations to come,” Mandenberg said.

Kelly Thayer, a journalist and transportation analyst at the Michigan Land Use Institute, applies his writing and planning skills to help make Michigan a model of Smart Growth. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org.

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