April 9, 2015
With construction of an expanded, multi-purpose trail system now underway, Whiterock Conservancy Executive Director Conrad Kramer told city leaders Monday that very significant visitation increases can be expected at Whiterock Conservancy within the next two years — which could translate into good business opportunities if local merchants choose to take advantage of them.
Last week, equipment and a full crew from Fort Collins, CO-based Singletrack Trails arrived at Whiterock Conservancy to begin construction of more than 30 miles of high quality trails that will provide access to the deepest parts of the vast Whiterock landscape.
“We’ve been raising money for seven years now for construction of this multi-purpose trail, and we’ve finally raised $1.6 million,” Kramer said during a 15 minute presentation at Monday’s regular city council meeting. “Now over a 14 month period we’re spending this money. We’re building all this infrastructure leading up to the grand opening in August.”
Kramer said that not only will the new trails enhance the area’s existing trail system (six mile town loop trail and three miles of asphalt trail that runs parallel to the Middle Raccoon River), but will also transform about nine miles of old farm lanes within Whiterock’s landscape into 12 miles of new high quality double track trail.
“We’re going from 18 miles of trail—half of which is poor quality — to 43 miles of trail, all of which is high quality,” he said. “And we’re completing a full loop of our landscape, which is really nice because trail users really don’t like to back track — they like to loop.”
Kramer noted other improvements are in the works for this summer, all with the idea of improving trail access and providing better accommodations for overnight trail users. One of those improvements is a new shower house to be located at Whiterock’s Turkey Ridge campgrounds, where they are increasing the number of campsites from five to 25.
“ We’re also building two new trail heads with parking lots, and we’re adding a new RV campground with 12 campsites,” Kramer continued.
The new recreational vehicle park will be located near the OakRidge House about three miles south of Highway 141 on Fig Avenue and a 1/4 mile east on 125th Avenue.
“We’re constructing five remote walk-in/bike-in only campsites along the trail, we’re adding a new budget friendly cottage accommodations, and we’ve just added a new 12 bedroom volunteer residence. All this will increase the number of people coming to Coon Rapids,” Kramer continued.
Whiterock staff is now more visible and accessible since moving their offices from the historic Garst Farm to the Bur Oak Visitor’s Center just off High- way 141 a mile east of Coon Rapids. The Visitor’s Center was remodeled to accommodate the offices as well as to provide high quality meeting and program space.
Kramer acknowledged that some visitors have been unsure about how to experience Whiterock Conservancy, since it is technically a private, nonprofit land conservancy instead of a state park. But he said all the recent improvements should significantly expand the number of visitors annually to Whiterock to a level much closer to similarly sized park facilities. He pledged more guidance will be available to visitors through additional marketing, signage and staff intervention.
PREPARING FOR THE BIG NEW USER GROUP
As the trail construction continues this spring, Kramer says, the biggest new user group that is likely to emerge is mountain bikers. That’s because Whiterock’s 16 miles of mountain bike trails will be the best destination mountain bike trail within 400 miles.
Kramer said the impact of a mountain bike trail system became clear when he discovered survey data from a similar trail in Minnesota. Just like Minnesota’s Root River Trail System has attracted tens of thousands of bicyclists annually, Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail is showing similar appeal to mountain bikers. Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail is located in central Minnesota, much of it on ground that was abandoned by mining companies 35 years ago.
“Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail opened in 2011 with 20 miles of mountain bike trails next to a tiny town of 1,000 people,” Kramer offered.
In the first year, 15,500 mountain bikers converged on Cuyuna Lakes. The next year they had over 22,000 visitors.
Kramer acknowledged that a full season of bike trails at Whiterock won’t be available until 2016. However, as sections of the new trails are completed, they will be opened this summer. He suggested that even using very conservative estimates, Whiterock Conservancy could see more than 7,000 additional visitors yet this summer and significantly more in 2016.
Survey information from Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Trail reveals that 95 percent of their visitors came from within four hours away. A radius of four hours around Cuyuna Lakes encompasses six million people, whereas four hours from Coon Rapids encompasses 12 million people. Thus Kramer says, it is possible Whiterock’s visitation could easily be much greater than their estimates.
Furthermore, data from Cuyuna Lakes indicate that 66 percent of the mountain bikers will seek overnight accommodations. “These are really great customers to have coming to town, and we expect to send them right down Main Street with wayfinding signs,” Kramer said. “Local merchants will have an opportunity to sell drinks, food, equipment, gas, souvenirs and other products, including overnight accommodations, since the need is far beyond Whitercock’s capacity,” Kramer said.
With more than 60 percent of the visiting mountain bikers wanting overnight accommodations, there is a clear need for motel or bed and breakfast businesses. The Cuyuna Lakes survey also reported a lack of a range of services, including lodging, food and entertainment available and oriented to the needs of the bikers in the first two years. Based on Cuyuna Lakes’ experiences, much of Kramer’s message focused on the need for Coon Rapids merchants to be ready and accommodating.
“Whiterock is perfectly happy to try to meet these needs ...but it is not really our mission...” Kramer continued. “It would be much better if local merchants would step forward and profitably try to take care of some of these needs.... The thing is, mountain bikers are not typical customers. On the plus side, these are middle class people with money ready to spend. Secondly, these people— traveling on their own athletic power — are going to need more snacks, more water, more places to rest, more places to eat out than other visitors.”
“We’ve been having this chicken or the egg argument in town for over seven years,” said Doug Carpenter, a former member of the CRDG. “How do you get people to come to your town if you don’t have any businesses, and how do you get the businesses if you don’t have anyone coming to town. This is the first time, really, in that seven years, that we can really put our finger on the expected amount of visitors. Unfortunately, the time is really short, and we’re not going to be totally ready but there are things we can do.”
Kramer said getting things done right quickly can really be beneficial going forward.
“One of the things we’re trying to do as we build this trail is to watch a scoring matrix put out by the International Mountain Bike Association,” he explained. “They have a scoring criteria for mountain bike destinations like ours. In the first year, Cuyuna Lakes put their trail together in such a way that they actually got a bronze level score as a bike center. That got them right up on the front page of the international mountain bike association website as a premier destination. Before the second year, they went back and made more improvements and were able to upgrade to a silver status and got 50 percent more visitors in the second year. We’re watching that scoring matrix, and we think we can get there, but some of the things that are on there are things like, ‘does the town have a brew pub?’ Does the town have this...that?’ Is there a trail link connecting to the town? Fortunately we have a hard link, but if the town can pick up a few of the things that Whiterock can never do, we can get a bronze and silver level, and almost all our marketing is done worldwide. That’s pretty exciting.”
Courtesy of Coon Rapids Enterprise, 4/9/15