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TCC Success Story: Duluth, MN

-- Report by Hansi Johnson, IMBA Midwest Regional Director, filed August 31, 2010

I'm well aware that visits from the Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crew bring big benefits for the communities they work with, but until recently I wondered how big of a change one weekend with the TCC could create. I decided to use a Crew visit to Duluth this summer as a barometer — I know exactly what is going on in Duluth at the club level, at the political level and among all kinds of trail users. I also know that Chris and Leslie Kehmeier, the TCC Crew that would lead the Duluth sessions, are some of the best people I've worked with in mountain biking.

The time and energy that it took to plan the visit was substantial. I worked closely with the host IMBA club (also my personal hometown club) the Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores (COGGS). We started planning months in advance and really thought through details, like what would be the most visible location for the Trail Building School, and what trail work we could schedule to invigorate Duluth mountain bikers.

My plan was to hold the Crew sessions at the Hartley Environmental Learning Center. It's a wonderful facility that has become overwhelmingly popular with cyclists, trail runners and hikers. After some initial unease, the good folks at the Hartley facility finally agreed to let us conduct volunteer trail work to improve key trail sections (see photo).

We scheduled a Club Care Night, a Land Manager School and also an IMBA Trail Building School for our weekend-long agenda. The Land Manager visit slowly evolved into a miniture summit, as news about our program spread among local agencies. I also asked Chris and Leslie to tailor their "Better Living Through Trails" presentation into a regionally specific examination of the economic impacts of mountain biking.

The COGGS club officers and I sent direct invites to over 100 regional land managers, eventually netting about 50 influential decision makers. Duluth's Parks and Rec department, from forester to head of the division, decided to attend. We got the county land managers on board, and convinced staff members from all of the state parks within a three-hour drive to attend. Amazingly, a few people from Congressman Oberstar's staff signed on, along with the Duluth members of the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. Then Duluth Mayor Don Ness announced his attendance and even more civic leaders got on board.

Before the Crew even came to town we had already leveraged the visit to the benefit of local riders. The relationship between COGGS and the Hartley Center had already taken a turn for the better, and city and state leaders were starting to consider a renewed investment in shared-use trails. We decided that this would be the moment to unveil the COGGS master plan. The Grand Traverse of Duluth promises a 50-mile trail system connecting the heart of the city to surrounding trails. We created a huge map and a big poster board explanation to wow the decision makers who had signed on for the TCC visit.

Things kicked off with Chris and Leslie leading the COGGS through a "Club Care" training. The meeting drew about 40 club members: we sorted through a lot of old baggage and valuable new ideas started to emerge. Huge success! The club now had new energy, confidence and strategies for taking the Grand Traverse of Duluth from a poster to an actual trail system.

The session for Land Managers was even more successful. I made some introductory remarks and handed things over to the COGGS president, who gave a fantastic introduction to the Grand Traverse. Chris and Leslie helped answer questions. Eventually I had to stop the Q and A session because the Mayor wanted to speak. He compared trails to a symphony, pointing out that many cities take justifiable pride in the cultural resources they offer their citizens. Trails, he said, should be used a similar marker to speak to the health, wellness and environmental sophistication of the host community. He then stated flatly that he would support an effort to make our city the "trails capitol" of the Midwest by embracing the COGGS plan for a Grand Traverse of Duluth trail system. Amazing!

The session for land managers concluded with Courtland Nelson, the head of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources Parks and Trails Division, giving a great presentation that  tied it all together. He told the assembled players that it can be done, there are funding streams to do it and most of the people in the room had the ability to find funding partners. The COGGS leaders were overrun by land managers handing cards and asking for meetings as the evening concluded.

Finally, the hands-on Trail Building School was equally successful, demonstrating that well-organized volunteers can be trusted to build sustainable, long-lasting and low-maintenance trails. Many land managers came back to attend the trail session even though they had not registered. Afterwards, the local horse and hiking clubs praised the trail work and IMBA's design principles. 

All in all, I have to say that this single visit by the Subaru/IMBA Trail Care Crew provoked the biggest changes that the Duluth trails community has ever seen. I knew the TCC program was good, but I didn't know it was that good!