by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
For maybe the second time in his life, Dave Heyboer, chairman of the Friends of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail (Friends), was struck speechless. It was Thursday, August 7, and Heyboer had just been presented a check for $502,240 from the Meijer Foundation to further augment a million dollars that had been previously granted some years ago. This latest donation was gifted to provide the 20% matching monies to a recently received federal grant of $2,240,000 to be used toward the final engineering and further paving of the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail (FMWPT).
“It was money sent from heaven,” said Heyboer.
The 92-mile-long FMWPT is a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) linear park that is the jewel of the state’s Rails-to-Trails system. Traveling north to south, it connects the cities of Cadillac and Grand Rapids. Some 35 miles have already been paved and are heavily used by countless numbers of people as a recreational destination. These users are not only local residents but also Michiganders from around the state and visitors from across the nation as well.
The new monies received will go toward the complete engineering of the entire unpaved portion of the FMWPT. The balance remaining will allow paving from Cadillac southward to, hopefully, LeRoy in late spring or early summer of 2010. This southward paving is a departure from the Grand Rapids northward paving that has been previously completed. By completing the engineering, further paving can move forward without delay as new monies come available.
Last Friday, September 11, a ceremony was held at the FMWPT staging area in Cadillac that was attended by 150 people. Federal, state and local officials, along with area businessmen, representatives of the Michigan Snowmobile Association, and members of the Friends were present. The guest of honor was to have been Fred Meijer, who was a little “under the weather” and unable to attend. Rob VerHeulen and Mike Julien of the Meijer Foundation ably represented Fred, himself.
Friends Chairman Dave Heyboer, who—along with the group he heads—has dedicated a major portion of his life toward the goal of the complete paving of the FMWPT, couldn’t be happier this day as he introduced attending dignitaries.
Among others, Mayor of Cadillac Bill Barnet said, “Cadillac is thrilled to see trail paving finally connect to the city’s existing paved pathways, and the city is proud to be one of the FMWPT bookends.”
Lee Richard, CEO of Avon Automotive in Cadillac, thanked the Friends and the Fred Meijer Foundation in particular who, as he said, “…laid a gift of economic development and recreational benefits at our feet.”
Robert Gattin, director of the Cadillac Visitors Bureau, added, “The FMWPT is a real icon and its paving surely will lead to more economic development and an influx of substantial tourism dollars for the city.”
Paul Yauk of the Michigan DNR Parks and Recreation Planning Dept. also thanked the Friends for spearheading the raising of monies. “The FMWPT is the backbone of a trail system connecting the state north and south and east and west.” Yauk went on to say, “The communities that flank the trail are steeped in history and prideful of their many offerings. They are eager and stand ready to be discovered. The DNR’s Parks and Recreation Department has been fielding phone calls from people all over the country making inquiries about Michigan’s trail systems. Either through word of mouth or in response to a nationwide ‘Pure Michigan’ advertising campaign on TV, recreational trail users have been flocking to Michigan, bringing their tourism dollars with them.”
In a final ceremonious handing over of an oversize check to DNR representatives, Meijer Foundation official Rob VerHeulen spoke to the group, conveying Fred’s appreciation to the Friends for their passion and love for the trail.
VerHeulen said, “The two biggest current issues facing the country are health care and the economy. The existence of the FMWPT and, indeed, the state’s Rails-to-Trails system as a whole addresses both issues for Michigan. Fred has always enjoyed walking and biking himself and loves to be involved in partnerships with local and state governments that provide low-cost and healthy outdoor activities along with the added plus of economic development that increased tourism brings to the economy.”
Mike Julien of the Meijer Foundation hinted to those present that they might look forward to the foundation’s involvement with the rest of the paving project in the future. “The trail is not done yet. There is much yet to do, keep going,” said Julien. To which Heyboer quickly replied, “You heard it here first, folks!”
A constant theme throughout the morning’s proceedings was the fact that, more and more, people are seeking destination/recreational vacations. The FMWPT offers trekking, biking, rollerblading, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling, etc. Throwing in the added recreational activities of world-class fishing along with canoeing and kayaking on the Rogue River and area lakes from Grand Rapids to Cadillac completes the recreational package. Communities that can provide the necessary amenities such as lodging, dining and shopping for tourists stand to reap a financial windfall.
Rockford has all of the above “in spades” with the exception of lodging. Just food for thought.