Fulton Co. board to decide on trail

For The Weekly Post

Short-term decisions can have long-term consequences, with households, business or government, and while there always are financial challenges, the economic impact of the pandemic is making some situations worse.

For the proposed Hanna City Trail – for which the City of Farmington, Village of Hanna City and Peoria County Board have approved intergovernmental agreements to pursue together – real concerns for the next Fiscal Year for Fulton County are making a decision by the Fulton County Board anything but a rubber stamp. Board members have been discussing the venture for months, and its Executive Committee is set to meet Wednesday (Sept. 2), before the next regularly scheduled Board meeting on Sept. 8.

Some officials are worried about Fulton County’s future financial picture; others are concerned about another future: area outdoor recreation opportunities and the new revenues that could stem from a new trail. The rails-to-trails proposal to buy the ex-Union Pacific Railroad right of way between Bellevue and Middle Grove has been in the works for more than 15 years.

Assisted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Trail Negotiation Commission expects to hear in October if it will receive a grant from the federal Recreational Trails Program for 80 percent of the $2.1 million purchase price of the 29-acre strip of land for development as a multi-use trail. The remaining 20 percent would be shared by Farmington, Hanna City, and Peoria and Fulton counties based on how much of the 24-mile area is in each jurisdiction.

Fulton’s 3.7-mile stretch is 14.9 percent of the distance, meaning the County would be obligated for a maximum of $62,013.80. Hours before Monday’s special meeting of the Board, Patrick O’Brian, Board chair of Fulton County – the last local government needed for the Hanna City Trail project to proceed – spoke candidly about the possibilities. “Fulton County is the self-proclaimed outdoor recreation capital of Illinois.

This would be great for the community if this project were to happen,” said O’Brian, who’s been a part of the discussion since 2014 (and actually grew up in a house by the now-unused rail line). That “motivated me to ensure we give this project an abundance of discussion and consideration. “However, when you’re an elected official, you have to make tough decisions,” he continued. “This will be one of those, and you can’t make these decisions based off personal feelings.”

Fulton County this year has a $1.1 million deficit, and last month about half of the unionized Courthouse workers were furloughed due to revenue declines caused by the pandemic. Also, the Board’s Finance Committee asked all departments to plan for a 10 percent reduction in expenditures in next year’s budget.

Trail advocates appreciate such factors but view the Hanna City Trail as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Fulton County,” said Trail Advocates of Central Illinois chair Mike Rucker. “This is the ‘last hurdle’ before the federal Surface Transportation Board will consider the grant for funds to purchase the rail line property,” Rucker told The Weekly Post. “Recreational trails certainly encourage healthy activities for residents – bikers, joggers and pedestrians – but of major importance is also the enhancement of businesses and the attraction of new residents.

Surveys indicate that home purchasers place importance on living near a recreation trail.” Brent Baker, a Brimfield native who’s Director of Workforce Solutions at the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council and active with an area bicycling group, said prospective benefits are significant. “It’s hard to pin down numbers for future economic gains without a crystal ball, but if you benchmark with the Rock Island Trail and Greenway, we can make some assumptions. “Over the last five years, millions of dollars in public and private investment along the Rock Island Trail have been made. Public improvements that abut privately held land that led to retail and commercial growth along the trail,” he said. “By looking at tax data at single family homes along the Rock Island Trail, those within a quarter of a mile of the trail have a higher assessed and market value than those farther away. Homes along the trail sell for 24 percent more on average than those farther away.” If the trail is OK’d, Baker added, “we could expect investments to positively impact the value of the properties along the trail and bring new patrons to businesses located in the communities along this stretch from the Bellevue area to rural Fulton County.”

Nationally, there’s supporting data. As an economic sector, outdoor recreation is larger than agriculture, and mining, according to the most recent study by the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). The BEA shows outdoor recreation – hiking, biking, boating, camping, using recreational vehicles, etc. – is among the largest U.S. industries tracked by share of Gross Domestic Product.

At 2.2 percent of GDP, the sector is smaller than construction (4.3 percent) but larger than legal services (1.3 percent), agriculture (1 percent, defined as farming, forestry and fishing), and mining, oil, and gas extraction (1.4 percent). In Central Illinois, there’s been considerable support for the Hanna City Trail. “We have just under 2,000 signatures collected in just under a month,” Baker said. “I’ve never seen this much energy and excitement around a trail in my seven years of biking advocacy. I believe this is due to the pandemic and everyone now really understanding the value of quality public space and rediscovering the amazing natural splendor of our region. We really do have some amazing recreational opportunities.” O’Brian heard from people, too, he said. “Public input is what has kept this alive,” he said. “We listened to the voices of support, but we also listened to those that are not in favor of it.”

The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission’s BikeConnect HOI: Heart of Illinois Regional Bicycle Plan points to 22,300 people living along the trail, and possibilities for linking to Wildlife Prairie Park, the Rock Island Trail and a potential Yates City-to-Canton trail. However, the agreement passed in Farmington, Peoria and Hanna City does not require Fulton or any local government to spend for future engineering, construction or other costs, but just to “consider” developments. And at the Rock Island Trail, day-today maintenance relies on volunteers helping state and park-district workers.

It can be difficult to invest in something when the payoff isn’t next month or next year, but O’Brian said he’ll at least defend the process. “No matter how the vote turns out, I feel we will have thoroughly discussed, studied and considered the totality of this project,” he said. “The Fulton County Board will have all the information necessary to make their decision. Knowing that, I can live with whatever the outcome may be.”

BILL KNIGHT can be reached at bill.knight@hotmail.com