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Wapello County Trails Council

Build it and they will come. That has become a reality for the Wapello County Trails Council. Formed as a result of Iowa’s Great Places effort, the group’s mission is “to create and coordinate a trails system that promotes health, recreation, and safety while maintaining the natural beauty of this historic area.”

It takes the entire community working together to create something this extensive,” said Hellige. “And the entire community benefits from this effort. It is definitely a win-win

Ottumwa’s first trail section was paved after RAGBRAI® 2000 rolled through town. Proceeds were combined with other resources, resulting in a 1.25 paved trail section on the south Des Moines River levee from The Beach to Quincy Avenue.

In 2006, increased interest in trail development led to the formation of the Wapello County Trails Council. After hosting several public meetings, a mission statement and master plan for a paved trail system was developed. Trail sections were prioritized and fundraising began. A challenge from John Deere to raise $30,000 was successful and the plant donated $10,000 to support early efforts.

This initial $40,000 was used as seed money to apply for grant funds. In 2007, a half mile section of the north levee was paved.

Wanting to create a pedestrian crossing using abandoned Wabash railroad bridge, the council was able to raise the $30,000 needed to re-deck the historic structure.  Volunteers helped with framing and decking, keeping costs to a minimum. The bridge over the Des Moines River is now an important link between the north and south levees.

In the spring of 2009, a $200,000 grant from Area 15 Regional Planning was used to complete the east section of the north levee. A special allocation from the 2006 Iowa legislative session provided another $220,000 to complete a section of the south levee from the rail bridge to Highway 34. A REAP grant paved another section of the south trail from the railroad bridge along an abandoned railroad line to Finley Street.

In 2010/2011, another grant from Area 15 Regional Planning completed the 3.4 mile south levee loop. And most recently, a REAP grant completed the north levee trail and another Area 15 Regional Planning grant paved one mile of trail from the Gray Eagle Nature Preserve northeast along the eastern most section of levee to the Ottumwa city limits. With the exception of a small trail section that will be impacted by the future widening of Highway 63 south, the original trail plan is now complete. The Wapello County Foundation has assisted with several of these projects, with funds used to provide local matching dollars.

The trails council hosts one major fundraiser each year. This weekend event, which includes the Tips for Trails and Mediathon, has provided the matching funds needed to leverage state and federal grants. To date, over $150,000 has been raised locally to leverage awards totally over $1 million.

And while the majority of the levee system is paved, several projects are on the horizon. The group has identified another section of levee on Ottumwa’s west side. The group, with support from the City of Ottumwa, recently acquired a bridge section that will be used to span a creek near Harrow’s Branch. The group also hired an engineering firm to complete plans for an underpass under Highway 34 near Quincy Place Mall. The project will connect OttumwaPark to the levee system and provide a safe alternative to crossing the highway. Bridges are also needed to provide access to TurkeyIsland. A subcommittee is also working with the trails councils in Eldon and Fairfield. The eventual goal is to link Ottumwa’s trails to Fairfield through Eldon.

The trails council is pleased with the community’s support. Walkers and bikers can be seen using all trails almost daily throughout the year. It is a testament to the need for this type of recreational outlet in Ottumwa. “The success of the trails council is a result of the partnerships that have been created,” said Kim Hellige, president of the trails council. Collaborations include engineering support from the City of Ottumwa to the beautification efforts of a local Girl Scout troop. The Chamber has supported trail efforts for the past six years. A popular event, the Holiday Lighted Hike provides walkers a chance to hike through lighted displays in November. And a recent partnership with the Ottumwa Police Department resulted in a Legacy Foundation award that was used to purchase an electric trail vehicle for trail patrolling.  There is also an exciting collaboration with the City of Ottumwa and the Legacy Foundation that involves aesthetic improvements to the Market Street Bridge during the deck replacement project.

“It takes the entire community working together to create something this extensive,” said Hellige. “And the entire community benefits from this effort. It is definitely a win-win.”