by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona just scored a major victory for its plan to blaze new, high-quality hiking and mountain biking trails in the bluffs south of Lake Winona. The agency charged with reviewing Legacy Amendment grants to improve parks and trails across the state — the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC) — recommended approval of the city’s $560,000 grant request.
That money, together with $128,000 in matching funds from the city and a $12,000 donation from Winona Area Mountain Bikers (WAMB), would fund phase one of the Bluffs Traverse project. The phase includes two new trails, invasive species removal, and work to decommission unsustainable, highly erosive trails in the Holzinger Trails network.
“I think my mouth was wide open when I heard,” Winona Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Alicia Lano said of the news. The successful grant application is the culmination of three years of planning by city officials and community members. The city’s last Legacy grant application for the project was unsuccessful. The new application was more modest and placed more emphasis on conservation. “Way to go Park and Recreation Department for getting this dialed in,” WAMB Board member Josh Horeck said.
Winona Park and Recreation Department Director Chad Ubl said, “Even more importantly than the money, the piece that stuck with me was that the GMRPTC thought our project was worthy of funding.”
The funding isn’t final yet. The Minnesota Legislature still needs to approve the GMRPTC’s grant recommendation in the spring. However, Lano noted, “Historically, every recommendation that the commission has given to the legislature has been approved, so we are more than optimistic that the city will receive this sizable grant in 2021.”
The GMRPTC’s decision is also a good sign for the possibility of more funding in future years to complete later phases of the Bluffs Traverse project. Ultimately, the city hopes to expand and rearrange the city’s trail network; connect Sugar Loaf, Garvin Heights, and Holzinger Trails in one continuous trail network; decommission badly eroded trails; preserve native plants; and suppress invasive species. “I think this is kind of the tip of the iceberg,” Horeck said.
The good news for the Bluffs Traverse comes on the heels of another state-funding victory for the city. Late last month, lawmakers approved $2 million in state bonds for phase one of Winona’s Riverfront Trail — a paved bike trail that would trace the Mississippi River from Levee Park to Bud King Ice Arena. Future phases aim to extend the trail along the entire riverfront.
“These projects are being seen as worthy,” Ubl said. “And we’ve had folks say, ‘Well this is just your first step. You’re in the system, and we know these projects are just phase one.’ So that’s nice to hear from people that they understand what the Bluffs Traverse and what the Riverfront Trail can be.”
The Riverfront Trail and Bluffs Traverse are part of the city’s increased effort in recent years to improve quality of life with parks and arts projects in order to attract and retain workers in Winona, where many businesses say they are experiencing a shortage of qualified job-seekers and trouble keeping talented workers in Winona. The two trail projects are also both examples of the city’s strategy in recent years to seek out state funding it hasn’t in the past. Winona’s Bluffs Traverse would be the first park or trail in Southeast Minnesota outside Red Wing’s Goodhue County and Rochester’s Olmsted County to receive funding from the GMRPTC’s pot of Legacy dollars. The Riverfront Trail was Winona’s first state bonding request in at least a decade.
“This is what we do to improve quality of life in our community and make it a great place to move to and set your roots, so we have employees for all the wonderful businesses in town,” Winona City Council member Paul Schollmeier said.
If approved, the grant money would not be available until the tail end of 2021, Ubl reported. Trail building would likely begin in 2022, though the city will be using some its own money to begin some work in 2021, he explained.
The two new trails the first phase of the Bluffs Traverse would construct include a beginner-level hiking and biking trail that would switchback up the bluff on the far western side of the current Holzinger Trail system and an intermediate mountain biking route in the same area. “Having a green trail, an easy trail to get up to the top of the bluff is fantastic,” Horeck said. Currently, less experienced riders starting at the bottom of the bluff face grueling climbs on the current trail network. Having an easier route to the top of the bluff will reduce the amount of people walking and biking up Garvin Heights Road and make the trail system more inviting for beginners, Horeck argued. “If we’ve got a green trail that’s accessible for everybody to be able to get up and down the bluffs, I think that’s a pretty fantastic thing for all parties: Drivers on Garvin Heights Road, the hikers, the bikers,” he stated.
“We really want to thank the community for their support and, in particular, the user groups who have been advocating for this funding,” Ubl said, adding that having a citizen group like WAMB contribute to the project helped make the city’s grant application more competitive.