An advocacy day at the State Capitol is being planned for March 18 to promote a bonding bill for the first phase of the Itasca-Heartland Connection Trail.

A multiple-purpose route connecting Itasca State Park to the Heartland Trail has long been desired by a local committee formerly known as the Heartland Spur Trail. According to Butch De La Hunt, president and CEO of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, the group recently changed its name to emphasize the trail’s connection to Itasca.

Describing the park as a “gem with half a million people visiting every summer,” De La Hunt called it “a no-brainer to connect the bikes to Itasca State Park.”

Park Rapids City Planner Andrew Mack said Sen. Paul Utke (R-Park Rapids) and Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) have agreed to introduce the $3.8 million bonding bill in both chambers of the Legislature.

“There are other resources for trails in Greater Minnesota,” said Mack, “but in this case, the group has decided to approach this through bonding dollars this session, because this is a bonding year for the Legislature.”

Mack noted that a separate project, the Heartland Extension Trail – routed from Park Rapids to Moorhead – is also seeking bonding dollars this year.

The complete connection trail project has been split into two phases. The current bonding bill is for Phase 1 only. According to Mack, it will run from the park’s contact center to the east entrance off U.S. Hwy. 71, tunnel under the highway, and travel two miles before joining an existing snowmobile trail. Eventually, Phase 2 will connect this with the Heartland Trail at Emmaville.

Asked why they split the project, De La Hunt said it was a matter of being realistic. “Instead of asking for a large sum of dollars,” he said, “we pulled it back and are asking for a smaller piece of the project.”

Making PR a destination

Getting trail users across Hwy. 71 is a top priority, De La Hunt said, for safety reasons.

“I think that’s going to be huge,” he said. “The Heartland Trail is one of our staples in the community. It brings a lot of bikers to the area. To be able to tie that additional segment together with Itasca, I think, is going to be fantastic. People will make this a destination to do that.”

De La Hunt noted that cyclists already travel to Itasca to ride in the park, but this often means breaking their trip up and going by car from Park Rapids to Itasca. He said the connection trail would “connect Park Rapids more to Itasca for the biker, and more safely,” and this could increase their chances of lodging in Park Rapids during their trip.

The day at the Capitol, Mack said, is part of a 90-day action plan initiated by ACTION Park Rapids. However, he credited the Heartland Spur group, county commissioners and members of the Itascatur Outdoor Activity Club for their years of work on the project.

“A lot of Itascatur members have been big stakeholders in it,” Mack agreed. “They’ve been involved in it from Day 1.”

Mack also acknowledged that DNR Parks and Trails did the preliminary engineering work for Phase 1, so if the bonding dollars are awarded, they can go toward final engineering, design and construction.

Making it real

Candy Christensen, the Chamber’s communications and marketing coordinator, said a flyer providing more details about the day at the Capitol will be posted on the Chamber’s website, parkrapids.com, under Events. The Chamber will also provide participants with a packet of information about the trail that they can share with Legislators.

“It’s really just about sharing information,” said De La Hunt. “If it does progress and move forward, (Legislators) are going to have the information at their fingertips, instead of only a few people knowing about it. We’ll have an opportunity to visit with them and tell them about how important it is to our community, face to face.”

Mack said they hope “to organize a short program for our folks from this area that go down there, before we break off into smaller groups and go around to the different Legislators’ offices, to provide information.”

Based on his experiences in Bemidji, where groups have successfully advocated for bonding projects including trails, Mack expressed optimism that Park Rapids can become a known force at the Capitol.

“We can rally around this cause,” he said.

“This is as far as the project has been,” De La Hunt added. “Making the route, having the preliminary engineering laid out, it’s …”

“It’s in a good spot,” said Christensen.

“It’s real,” De La Hunt said.