RRVT Association Celebrates 10 years of promoting the trail

 

When the members and supporters of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association come together on Saturday evening for their annual banquet, they can also consider it a celebration of 10 years of remarkable work by this non-profit organization of volunteers.

Time for some perspective on that.

Founded in early 2006, the association’s mission was the same then as it is now – to market and promote the RRVT and the communities along it.

The trail, which is owned and operated by the conservation boards in Dallas, Guthrie and Greene Counties, opened in 1989 as a 34-mile-long asphalt path from Waukee to Yale.  Over the years, it has been extended north to Jefferson; east through Waukee to connect with trails in metro Des Moines, and in 2013 a 33-mile “north loop” was completed through Perry.  It is now 89 total miles, with the unique interior loop of 72 miles, and it’s all paved.  If we were just starting out today and attempting to build the trail we now already have, it would cost in excess of $25 million.

The RRVT is indeed one of the best – and best-known – recreational trails in the U.S.

And a primary reason it is so widely known is because in its 10 years, the RRVT Association has raised and spent more than $300,000 in advertising, marketing and promoting the trail.  The past treasurer Bob German, of Dallas Center, and current treasurer Ron Stallman, of Clive, have just checked the financials for the past decade and the actual figure on expenditures is $331,075.

All of that has brought a huge response from trail users.  Electronic-beam “trail counters” used all up, down and around the trail have confirmed that the number of people on the trail now tops 300,000 per year.  Conversations with them, sign-ins in some guest books and social media postings tell us that these people are coming from all over Iowa, from nearly every state and from countries around the world.

In the 14 communities on the RRVT, more than a dozen new businesses have started up in the last 10 years, at least partially because of the trail and the promotion it has received.  And the economic benefit for many other existing businesses has grown substantially, too.

If you want to help support all that, a good, fun way is to buy tickets and attend the 9th annual RRVT Association banquet this Saturday night at the Marriott Hotel in West Des Moines.  The $50 tickets and more information are available right here:  http://bit.ly/1u9XOZ8. You’ll also hear a terrific speaker, trails expert Lisa Hein, of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.  Many regard her as the “mother of rec trails” across Iowa. You can read more about her right here: http://bit.ly/1TcqICM.

So how did the RRVT Association start?

My wife Carla Offenburger and I had a hand in it.  In June of 2004, we moved to our acreage just southwest of Cooper, one of the RRVT towns.  The main reason we made the move was to live adjacent to the trail.  A month after we arrived, Tom Polking and Rick Morain, two leaders of Greene County’s economic development group, invited us to lunch in Jefferson. “We know you two have seen a lot of development projects around the state,” Morain said. “We want to hear your ideas about some of the things we have going on here.” 

Over lunch, they noted that among the distinguishing amenities that Greene County had then, the RRVT has its northern-most trailhead in Jefferson.  “We love having the trail end here,” Polking said. “But most of us look at it kind of like it’s our own private park. It seems like it could be something more.”

Carla Offenburger’s response was immediate. “First, stop saying the trail ends here, and start saying the RRVT starts here,” she said.

And I offered a suggestion.  As I had watched Iowa’s trail system develop from the 1980s, people in 10 different communities around the state had asked me how they could start a trail, or get one to come to their community.  “I’ve told all of them the same thing,” I said to Polking and Morain, “that they should get a charter bus and take a bunch of community leaders to the Root River State Trail in southeast Minnesota. It’s the Cadillac of trails,” or at least it was in 2004. “Interestingly, none of those 10 communities have ever followed up and done that.”

Polking did not flinch.  “If we get the bus,” he said, “will you and Carla organize the trip?”

We said yes, they did and we did.  On the first Saturday of October, 2004, about 40 people from communities all up and down the RRVT boarded a bus for Lanesboro and Whalan, Minnesota. 

We did not take our bicycles. We told everybody this was a working trip, that we had arranged conferences with the community and business leaders of the Minnesota towns to learn from them what had worked and what had not during their 15 years of trail development.  Their Root River State Trail was the main cog in what had become a $25 million annual tourism industry in their Fillmore County. 

The Saturday we happened to be there was warm and beautiful, with spectacular fall colors on the bluffs and in the valleys along the spectacular Root River. And we Iowans were first-person witnesses to the tourism.  There were so many bicyclists on that trail and in the towns that day, it looked like RAGBRAI must be visiting!

By late Saturday afternoon when we picked up box lunches and boarded the bus for the trip home, our crowd of 40 was buzzing with excitement and ideas for what could happen on the RRVT.  And we had a new clandestine mission statement for whatever effort we were going to put together: “If there’s something that has worked on the Root River State Trail, we’re going to steal the idea for the RRVT.”  And we pretty much have done just that.

That bus tour group, by the way, included Lisa Hein as well as the conservation directors from all three counties – Mike Wallace of Dallas, Joe Hanner of Guthrie and Dan Towers of Greene.

Before the trip, I had asked Hein to estimate if we were just starting to build the 56-mile-long RRVT we had right then, how much it would cost.  She calculated it would be $11.2 million.  Carla and I came up with the mantra that “the RRVT isn’t just a 56-mile trail, it’s an $11.2 million piece of economic development infrastructure that we do not have to build – we’ve already got it. If we can’t figure out how to use it for that, shame on us!”

The three conservation directors?  I’ve always said they are the “secret weapons” that the RRVT has, because all three have worked on the RRVT from its beginning in 1989.  They are probably the most knowledgeable trail builders and operators in the nation. 

But in 2004, they talked about one skill they did not have.  Towers once put it this way: “We’re conservation guys. We tend to be hunters, fishermen, outdoors-types, conservationists. That’s why we got into this field.  But we’re not very good at public relations and promotion.  Most of us don’t even like doing that.”

Yet, all three were enthusiastic about partnering with a group of us who were willing and capable to take the lead on the marketing and promotion.  In fact, each of them persuaded their conservation boards to donate $1,000, and their $3,000 total became the financial foundation for the RRVT Association at its founding in 2006.

Carla Offenburger, who has extensive background in organizing bicycle, trail and other tourism events, became the first chairperson and served in that position for six years.

During 2005, while she was getting the new association set-up and registered as a 501.c3 non-profit, a small group of us began working with an Iowa State University graphic design class, taught by Cooper resident Cheri Ure, on a signage system for the trail.  The ISU students designed the logos, signs, banners, brochures and website – and you still see their work in most of the publications and promotions we produce.  Back then, I think we were all surprised when we were able to raise $50,000 in order to have the initial signs built and placed along the trail. 

When the RRVT came into formal existence in early 2006, there were 11 members of the board of directors, drawn from all three counties and from most of the eight towns then on the trail.

“One of the things that I think has made the association successful is that right from the start, it was as much or more about the communities along the trail as it was about the trail itself,” Carla Offenburger said last week. “Our focus was helping the communities leverage having the trail, to create more economic impact in their towns.  If you remember, we started out by inventorying what the amenities were in all of the towns.  Then we started promoting the idea that if we were going to make this trail tourism-friendly, we had to have overnight accommodations, places to eat and drink, and flush bathrooms in all of our towns – even the littlest ones.  We’ve pretty well accomplished that.

“Another way I look at the success is that at first, we were working a lot just to get the communities excited about being on the trail,” she continued.  “By the time the north loop was being developed, those new trail communities were ‘into it’ right away.  They knew what the potential was from watching what had happened in the towns that were already on the RRVT.”

Daniel Willrich, of Dallas Center, succeeded Carla Offenburger as chairperson in 2012.

“What got me into wanting to be on the board, and then agreeing to be the chairperson, was that first, I’m a cyclist,” Willrich said. “Second, I was on the city council in Dallas Center, and I found out that we might have this opportunity to bring the trail through our town.  We’re lucky in Dallas Center that the old railroad right-of-way that the trail uses comes right through our business district.   We’ve seen the trail traffic grow and grow here since the loop fully opened, and I only see more opportunities for all the trail towns in the future.”

One of the best moments for both the RRVT and the RRVT Association happened in Perry on June 1, of 2013. 

That was the morning when the formal grand opening of the 33-mile addition, forming the loop.  It had cost about $8 million and required almost three years of construction.  Mayors of all 14 communities carried new RRVT banners to the stage set up at the Perry trailhead.  You could get your photo taken with the trail’s mascot raccoon (wearing a $1,000 costume we still use but too infrequently).  Kevin Cooney, the veteran news anchor for KCCI-TV (and veteran bicyclist on the RRVT), gave a rousing speech. 

A whole new era opened then for the RRVT and its communities.

In 2014, Cindy Jensen, of West Des Moines and Lake Panorama, succeeded Willrich as chairperson.  This March, she’ll be succeeded by Cooper Riley, of Clive.

The growth that has happened in Jensen’s tenure has been amazing.

As trail user numbers have mushroomed, following the opening of the loop, so has the number of people who are supporting members of the RRVT Association.  Actually, now they are not referred to as “members” but as “Friends of the Trail,” donating at least $50 – which buys them their trail permit, which is good for the calendar year, plus donating to the work of the association. 

Jensen reports that in 2015, there were 602 such donors or “Friends,” with total donations of $9,975.  That number of donors had jumped from 397 in 2014.

Plus, the number of people serving on the association’s board of directors has now grown to 18.

“From the beginning, we have had top quality people on the board,” Jensen said. “We have had professional people who have brought a broad range of interests and skills.  I think the two things that we have all had in common is that we’re bicyclists and that we all love the trail. As a result of that, people have been willing to be a part of what is a hardworking board.  From the beginning, we’ve had meetings every month, and we always seem to have a full agenda.”

Those meetings are now held on the second Thursday of each month at 7:30 a.m. at the headquarters of the Dallas County Conservation Board, on the southwest corner of Perry.

Over the last two to three years, the RRVT Association’s daily business – which includes processing donations and trail permits – became much heavier.  The board decided to hire Dallas Conservation Board staff for part-time work on the association’s administrative work.  That has enabled the association to operate more even more efficiently and business-like than it always has.

Other significant steps by the association – all of them bringing more people into active involvement with the RRVT – have included:

--Facilitation, participation and sponsorship of three different day-long seminars that have focused on trail-related business and tourism development.

--Formation of the “RRVT Ambassadors” who work as volunteers at trail events and serve as conduits of information between the association and their communities.

--Frequent publication and updating of RRVT maps and brochures.

--Expanding our advertising of the trail in regional publications, and globally on the Internet.

--Operation of this Internet site, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts.

--Advocating and getting directly involved in fundraising for the conservation boards when they’ve had trail renovation, maintenance and expansion projects, including the proposed “Connector Trail” now proposed between the RRVT and the neighboring High Trestle Trail.

--Being actively involved in the planning, development and fundraising for major public art installations along the RRVT, a project now in progress.

--Recruiting and facilitating several large annual events on the trail, including “Market to Market Relay Iowa” in May, the Des Moines Cycle Club’s “Tour The Raccoon” in early June, and the “BACooN RIDE” later in June sponsored by RAGBRAI, the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival and the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.  As part of that, the association has just worked with the conservation boards to develop a new guidebook for event organizers, available from the conservation offices.

In the 10 years of the association, board members have served up to three three-year terms, then been replaced by new members.  The last of the original board members are now in that transition.  You can read more about that right here:http://raccoonrivervalleytrail.org/rrvt-association.  That has enabled the organization to stay fresh and to plan long-range.

Hopefully, you can tell from all this that there are a lot of ways to get involved.  It’s fun, healthy and has a very positive impact on our communities as well as our whole region. 

Come join us at the banquet Saturday night and we’ll tell you more.

 

Courtesy of Chuck Offenburger, Raccoon Valley River Trail Blog, 2/15/16. 

Raccoon River Valley Trail Greene County Recreation Guthrie County Bike Trail RRVT

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