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The long and winding road

This was supposed to be the year the Shooting Star Trail reached Rose Creek.

But after a decade and half of work, trail enthusiasts are accustomed to setbacks.

When the project started in 1993, the initial plan was for the trail to be to Austin in five years, according to Gerald Meier, president of the Shooting Star Trail Committee and a member of Prairie Visions, a joint powers group in LeRoy, Taopi, Adams and Rose Creek.

However, people are already looking to 2011 as the year the bike trail finally reaches Rose Creek after the project failed to receive state funding.

Set backs have become common with the trail, but Meier and others are determined to work through them. The trail was delayed when a group of landowners sued over the trail’s path through the Taopi area. Debate over how the path would cross Highway 56 also delayed the trail, according to Dale VanDenover, who is an active member of Prairie Visions and president of Friends of the Shooting Star Trail.

“We were supposed to be to Rose Creek two years ago,” VanDenover said.

“It’s very frustrating,” he added.

Funding

Shooting Star Trail currently stretches about 15 miles from LeRoy through Taopi to Adams.

Construction began last year to prepare the land connecting the trail to Rose Creek. By the time the work finishes later this summer, about $200,000 will have been spent rehabilitating bridges, and fixing culverts along the route, according to County Engineer Mike Hanson.

The path to Rose Creek is set and ready for construction, but one key puzzle piece is missing: Money.

“From Adams to Rose Creek the plans were totally completed,” Hanson said. “The right of way is the county’s. Everything was ready to go, but the governor vetoed the money.”

The state legislature included the money in its initial bonding bill. The bill included about $1.5 million for Shooting Star Trail and $1.6 million for Freeborn County’s Blazing Star Trail — the plan is for the two trails to eventually connect.

However, Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut the funds with a line item veto when he shaved a proposed $1 billion bill to $686 million in March. Partial funding for the trails was proposed later in the session only to die again at the governor’s desk.

The money would have been sufficient for the trail to reach Rose Creek.

“There’s no money,” VanDenover said. “We’ve spent everything we’ve got. We’re just waiting now until hopefully next year there will be moneys allocated that we can finish that segment.”

The longer it takes to complete the project, the more money it will end up costing. According to Meier, the project may have cost as much as a third less had it been completed as originally scheduled.

With the lack of funding, Prairie Visions leaders recently proposed a shared bike lane as a way to connect the trail to Austin. However, county officials are not yet sure if the idea is feasible.

Economy

The trail is so important, Meier said, because it will boost the economies of small towns, much like canoeing has been a tourism boost for the northern part of the state.

“The bike trail is going to do for southeast Minnesota what the canoeing has done for northeastern Minnesota,” Meier said.

Lanesboro is a prime example, as VanDenover said the Root River Bike Trail has brought people to the town. While he noted the Shooting Star Trail isn’t in a similar geographical area as Lanesboro, he said there’s a lot to see on Shooting Star: agricultural land, Lake Louise State Park, prairie land and wildflowers in the fall.

“Economically, there’s all kinds of opportunities,” VanDenover said.

Along with boosts to the economy, VanDenover said the trail will provide a good family activity, and get young people off the couch and outside.

Becky Hartwig opened the Rose Peddler in Rose Creek as a shop aiming to attract bikers. The store features ice cream, coffee, lunches and a gift shop.

“We opened 8 1/2 years ago because we thought a bike trail was coming by,” Hartwig said.

“We were kind of gearing toward bike people and bike traffic and we’re not getting it,” she added.

Even though the bike trail is still miles away, Hartwig said the business is continuing to survive. Hartwig also opened the Log Cabin Inn a few years ago, but she’s still waiting to see if the trail will bring business along with the bikers.

“It’s not good,” she said. “I just hope that I’m still here when the bike trail gets here.”

As the delays continue, many Rose Creek residents are losing their patience, Hartwig said.

“A lot of them wanted their kids to be able to use it and now their kids are grown up,” she said.

Chad Burma, store manager, said Rydjor Bike Shop said he is following the Shooting Star Trail closely because of its potential to affect business.

“It will be good for business and it will be good for the area,” he said.

Rydjor Bike Shop already attracts a number of customers from the Adams and LeRoy area where the trail is completed.

While he doesn’t expect waves of new bikers, Bruma said he expects the trail to inspire bikers to become more active.

“I think once it gets to Austin we’ll definitely see a hike in people’s interest in it, and we’ll see a difference in how people are using it,” he said. “It’s still a little ways from Austin for people. It’s a little hard to get to it by bicycle right now.”

But not everyone is waiting anxiously. Hartwig said many business owners have expressed doubt that the trail will be a boost for businesses.

The path to Austin

While the path to Rose Creek is ready and waiting, the trail’s future beyond Rose Creek isn’t as certain. The next hurdle in expanding the trail is reaching Austin, which many people see as a key step in the success of the trail.

“We’re going to get to Rose Creek someday, but we need to get to Austin to make it a viable trail for people to come down to,” Hartwig said. “We need Austin people to get serious about it, too.”

Hanson recommended a committee be formed to discuss how the trail will reach Austin because there are currently varying opinions about the route. The committee would include officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Mower County, the City of Austin and Prairie Visions.

While there are differing opinions of how to get the trail to Austin, Meier said he’s sure a viable route will be agreed upon.

In order to keep the project moving, Meier said they’ll soon start buying land west of Rose Creek. But he cautioned it won’t happen overnight.

“It all takes time and it takes money,” he said.

Along with support from the county and DNR, Meier said he and other area trail supporters have learned a lot working with the Southeastern Minnesota Association of Regional Trails (SMART).

“All of them have their ups and downs,” he said of the other trails. “You think you’re doing just great and things are going along fine and then wham — you run into a stone wall. You get back up and take another run at it.”

Despite the setbacks, Prairie Visions and other community leaders will continue working on the project.

“It’s got to the point where we aren’t going to give up, and we’re going to have more setbacks,” VanDenover said.

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