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ON THE MOVE: The Gull Lake Trail connects neighbors  and neighborhoods.
Photographs courtesy of Rob Mason, City of East Gull Lake City Administrator / Planning and Zoning Administrator

Happy Trail

How the Gull Lake Trail came to be one of Central Minnesota’s most cherished public spaces.

By Stephanie Dickrell

They say it takes a village. In the case of the Gull Lake Trail, it took three cities, two counties and a township almost  20 years of organizing and community work to make a paved trail on this iconic Central Minnesota lake a reality.

“Trails can be a great part of a community’s economic revitalization,” said Don Hickman, vice president of community and workforce development at the Initiative Foundation. “They can become the spur for additional economic development, from attracting young families and skilled workers who wish to live near a recreational amenity to new investments in hospitality businesses.” 

The trail will eventually surround Gull Lake’s western shore with 21 miles of paved paths. The most recent stretch in Fairview Township is scheduled for completion in 2020, with 7.8 miles of trail that will connect East Gull Lake and Lake Shore. In Lake Shore and Nisswa, there still are about 4 miles of trail to complete, along with infrastructure that will include parks and trail heads. Eventually, officials plan to connect the Gull Lake Trail to the 120-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail in Nisswa and trails near Camp Ripley. 

Making Mayberry
The idea for the trail was hatched during an early 2000s visioning session for the future of the Brainerd Lakes area. The interest was strong, said Hickman, who noted that communities understand trails can attract outside money and interest to rural communities. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that getting the green light was easy. “Seldom does a project mature and get implemented in a short period of time,” Hickman said. “Persistence and commitment are real virtues.”

Getting the buy-in of Cass County was a crucial step. When county commissioners agreed to provide funding and access along Cass County Road 77—the main route of the trail—the first and most important piece was in place.

In 2002, regional leaders watched as East Gull Lake put the finishing touches on its trail segments. It didn’t take long for the trail to become a source of community-building pride and a hub of healthy activity.  

“When it opened, it was like Mayberry,” said Marla Yoho, secretary and treasurer of the Cass County Association of Townships. There were young parents pushing strollers, teenagers riding bikes, retirees walking dogs. It seemed that everyone wanted to be outside, enjoying this new amenity.  

“The trail systems are a safe place for people to go,” explained Rob Mason, city administrator and planning and zoning administrator for East Gull Lake. “They connect neighborhoods and neighbors.”

Parks and trails are also good for business: They help to attract and retain skilled workers. “For younger generations,” Hickman said, “it’s clear they often choose where they want to live before they even choose what they want to do.” 

In Fairview Township, organizers highlight the 13 resorts, nine restaurants, 13 major attractions and several golf courses situated along the trail by including them on its official map.

That’s good news for those businesses, according to Mason, who worked at Madden’s for 38 years before starting his local government career. “Having those trails not too far from resorts makes them that much more attractive for [potential visitors],” he said. 

It’s a formula for success that has been used elsewhere in the region, including the popular Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in Ironton, which was supported in its early stages by the Initiative Foundation. “People were convinced the trail network was going to hurt the mining industry and was a hare-brained idea,” said Hickman. That was 20 years ago. Today, the park has earned national accolades from Outside magazine and high praise from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. According to a recent survey, 25,000 cyclists a year ride the trails, adding an estimated $2 million to the local economy. That same survey predicts that number will increase to $21 million once the trails are expanded to the planned 75-mile total.

Mutual Benefits 
When regions work together, even the smallest groups can make a big impact. When it comes to the Gull Lake Trail, Fairview Township is a good example. “We’re only a little township of 800 people,” said Yoho. 

With an annual budget of about $300,000, the township has to be prudent about spending. But Yoho saw the potential that the trail could bring to her community and continued to lobby the township board to consider adding to the trail.

In 2016, Fairview Township resident Jenny Gunsbury asked Yoho what, if anything, was happening with Fairview’s portion of the trail. Yoho invited Gunsbury to the next board meeting. Their combined enthusiasm spurred the board to take action. That night, they passed a resolution to work on a trail. Gunsbury is now the chair of the Fairview Trail Advisory Committee. 

When the township’s engineering firm estimated that the project would cost $1.7 million, both Yoho and Gunsbury felt overwhelmed. They knew they had to apply for funds, but neither one had experience with grant-writing. 

Still, they remained undeterred. With a goal to not use township property taxes to pay for the trail, the two buckled down and looked for new funding opportunities. The Initiative Foundation provided $2,500 in seed money to engage the community and to research and apply for grants. Hickman also helped Yoho and Gunsbury search a database of grants and guided them on strategy. “He made us realize we could do it,” said Yoho. “There was a way—short of stealing from our kids’ college funds.” 

The duo also delegated tasks according to their strengths. “Jenny’s the great writer,” Yoho said. “I know the nuts and bolts of the governmental end.” 

Today, in addition to county funds, Fairview Township is using a variety of local, state, federal, nonprofit and private funding sources, including donations from local residents and businesses, Conservation Fund 73, Brainerd Community Foundation, the Federal Recreational Trail Grant program, the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission and Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment. 

To attract more support and grant money, the Fairview trail group developed a theme: “Get hooked on the Gull Lake Trail.” The logo is based on the shape of the finished trail, which resembles a fishhook.

At community meetings, Yoho and Gunsbury encountered only enthusiasm from residents, who saw the potential difference in their quality of life and property values. Local fundraising events were huge successes. At an event held at the Jack Pine Brewery in Baxter, the room was so packed with people that Yoho and Gunsbury didn’t have time to enjoy even a sip of water. 

“I realized for the first time that we were part of something beyond a 21-mile trail,” said Yoho. “All of these other people were making me realize this was a really big thing … and if we didn’t do it, our township would have been this huge gap in this big wonderful system.” 

Communities wanting to learn more about bringing parks and trails to their area can contact Don Hickman of the Initiative Foundation at dhickman(at)ifound.org or (320) 631-2043.

For more information about Fairview Township’s approach, contact Jenny Gunsbury at jenny(at)bercher.com or (218) 270-0229.

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