Meandering from Junction City to the West Bottoms of Kansas City, the Kansas River, or the Kaw, is one of the world’s longest prairie rivers. The river’s origin, the region encompassing Junction City, Manhattan, St. George and Wamego, is the Flint Hills River Region. The Kaw begins in Junction City, where the Republican River and Smoky Hill River form the Kansas River, and continues through Manhattan, where the Big Blue River joins, to St. George and Wamego. This Flint Hills River Region includes parts of Geary, Riley and Pottawatomie counties, a region currently served by the Region Reimagined development initiative.
Juxtaposed by tallgrass prairie and limestone outcroppings, the river was this region’s first trail and has been central to the economy, from the fishing canoes and trade networks of the Kaw Nation and the French fur traders to the steamboats that brought Free State settlers to the Flint Hills. Despite its history of flooding, the river has lent this region a high quality of place. From members of the Kaw Nation, who established the first modern settlement, Manyinkatuhuudje or Blue Earth Village, at the confluence of Big Blue River, to the first white settlers, who formed the community of Canton in the same location, to the passengers of The Hartford steamboat that ran aground nearby, movement on the Kansas River and its three tributaries has been central to a sense of place in the Flint Hills River Region.
While the rivers were foundational to the region, they regularly flooded, which threatened the development of the growing towns and cities along the banks, especially Manhattan. After the Great Flood of 1951, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Tuttle Creek Dam, replacing Blue Valley communities north of Manhattan with a reservoir. At the same time, developments that led to the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 established the interstate and the automobile as the symbol of movement and economic development country wide. With the threat of flood diminished by the dam and levees, the region became disconnected from its rivers and itself. For decades, the river meandered between the three cities, in sight and tame, largely unvalued for anything other than irrigation and dredging.
Lately, we’re remembering our rivers. We’re remembering our prairies. We’re remembering our regionalism. Perhaps, it was inevitable that we’d remember, like a favorite watch lost and found again, but this recent push for regionalism was spurred by a realization that we’re competing for a labor force who will choose to live in quality places. Lately, we’ve realized that quality movements, not just the fast, flattened straight lines of I-70, are more rare and valuable than ever before, as quality of place takes time to recognize.
Quality of Place
Quality of place is an intangible concept that considers the who, what and how of a place. Because tomorrow’s labor force evaluates quality by first searching to see themselves in a place, high quality places are often diverse spaces with racial pluralism, open expression of gender and sexuality, and where many languages are spoken. Next, quality places contain intentionally designed built environments and well-incorporated natural elements, such as forest, grassland and wetland systems. Finally, high quality places are home to vibrant cultures that are often judged on their authenticity and tolerance. As difficult as a quality place is to define, it is even harder to develop, in part because it lacks the hallmark analytic indicators of traditional economic development.
The challenge to develop a high quality of place is bigger than Manhattan, Wamego or Junction City can handle alone, which is why the Region Reimagined Initiative, a tri-county community and economic development effort, identified quality of place as one of its five strategic focus areas. The aim of this sustained regional focus is to “provide quality of place environments and amenities that enhance community, appeal to and attract professionals across all economic sectors, and enhance tourism.” While focused, this goal still lacks the sort of indicators that allow the community to directly evaluate the effectiveness of quality of place campaigns in areas other than tourism. This again, speaks to the difficulty of developing an authentically quality place for tomorrow’s workforce and employers.
In addition to the river, the Flint Hills River Region is a part of the largest intact tallgrass prairie ecosystem in North America. The Flint Hills is criss-crossed by miles of gravel roads, which are home to one of the fastest growing segments of the cycling industry. Because each of these assets are shared by the cities and counties of our economic region, the region is forced to move forward together or not at all, knowing that investments in collective assets will produce sustainable and broad returns for all three communities.
The primary obstacle to realizing the value of these resources in terms of quality of place is access. “Places like Northwest Arkansas have created the opportunity to experience place with bike trails. We simply haven’t done that,” said Aaron Apel, the former owner of Big Poppi Bicycle Co. in Aggieville and the current manager of Gravel City Adventure and Supply Company in Emporia. “When Manhattan wins an award on Livability we all get excited, but those awards are lagging indicators and reflect investments that we made 10, 15 years ago. Instead of patting ourselves on the back, we should be asking what infrastructure investments will attract a competitive workforce in 10, 15 years, because your economic development depends on your quality of place going forward.”
When we create the access to our region’s natural assets, we improve recognition of our quality of place. Pedestrian, biking and water trails, when properly designed, increase access in a way that is both safe and sustainable and, because they improve the perception of quality of place, trails are predictive of future success. Also, because it’s easy to measure the distance of new trail installations and the progress of existing trail improvements and because both measures are easily influenced, trails are a primary predictor for future economic development and represent a key opportunity to support the recruitment and retention of a competitive workforce and high-quality employers in the Flint Hills River Region. Finally, because total and average miles ridden and walked are easily surveyed, we can easily track progress toward a more healthful region.
The value of trails is certainly valued in the region. In 2016, surveys conducted for the The City of Manhattan Parks and Recreation Strategic Facility Improvement Plan, found that 70 percent of households had used community trails and that 41 percent had identified walking and biking trails as “the most important parks and recreation facility to their family.” Then, in 2017, Manhattan voters approved a 10-year, quarter-percent, “Quality of Life Sales Tax,” which will raise $27.5 million. While over 90 percent of those funds will be used to develop indoor recreation centers at Anthony and Eisenhower middle schools, improve the ballfields and tennis courts at CiCo Park, $2 million will go toward filling gaps in existing trail infrastructure.
For Wyatt Thompson, the assistant director of Parks and Recreation, this funding is just the start: “A dedicated funding source is important because the City can more easily pursue grants that require a local match and plan for larger trail projects on a more consistent basis over the next several years. We have also used this as an opportunity to engage more with the community, in the years leading up to the vote and since, to determine which projects will have the most impact and create the best value for trail users.”
In Pottawatomie County, the 2009 US-24 Corridor Management Plan examined the dramatic growth of the highway running between Wamego, St. George and Manhattan. In evaluating the corridor, 52 percent of respondents gave the availability and accessibility of alternate transportation modes along US-24, such as pedestrian walkways and bicycle infrastructure, a 1 out of 5 or “unacceptable/very poor” and another 25.4 percent ranked the corridor’s active transportation offerings with a 2 out of 5. In that survey, only 3.6 percent of respondents said that there was “acceptable” accessibility and availability along the corridor.
In response to these survey results and key information on the state of the county’s active transportation infrastructure, the new comprehensive plan, “Plan Pottawatomie 2040,” has considered including a strategic mandate to “expand active transportation options (such as trails) in the County.” Darin Miller, owner of Iron Clad Coworking and an organizer with the proposed WAM-SAG-MAN Trail, welcomes this recommendation. “We are a long way away from diminishing returns in investment of trails for quality of life,” Miller says, “I currently can’t think of a better investment.”
For Clint McAllister, owner of Brew Bros Hops and Sprockets and an organizer with Manhattan Trail Works, increased access is key to developing local and visitor appreciation of our natural resources. “The Flint Hills offer some of the best terrain for hiking and off-road cycling that Kansas has to offer. The rolling hills are rife with captivating scenic vistas and challenging terrain. I think that fact may be lost on some people who typically think of Kansas as flat. Of course, the creation of more trail miles would drive more visitors. At the same time, there is already a good amount of varied experience to be had here and more awareness of what is offered could be very advantageous.”
Trail Development Is Economic Development
Trail improvement and development has not only been shown to increase quality of life, investments in trails are investments in a region’s economy and the effect of trails has been measured on three indicators: property values, healthcare related costs, and tourism.
In southwestern Ohio, the Little Miami Scenic trail snakes along the banks of the Little Miami River from Cincinnati to Springfield. At 78.1 miles long, it is the third-longest paved trail in the U.S. and on any given day, you will find joggers, bicyclists, rollerbladers and an occasional horseback rider enjoying the tree-lined trailway. Glancing at the Lycra-clad patrons lined up outside the small-town ice cream shop in Loveland or the number of bikes and packs piled outside the local diner in Yellow Springs, it would be hard to believe that there was ever opposition to the Little Miami Scenic Trail, but the success locals enjoy today was the result of a 26-year fight and a visionary group of leaders.
The Little Miami Scenic Trail is a rail-trail or a trail that is built on or along a former railroad right-of-way. While this property can be easier to acquire than large blocks necessary for parks, it usually involves more adjacent landowners who often have concerns about a trail in their backyard. Typical landowner concerns include loss of privacy, the possibility of trespassing and littering, and an increase in noise from the trail. These concerns, if realized, could lead to a less desirable location and a decrease in property values near the trail, which is the reason why Terrace Park, one of the wealthiest Cincinnati suburbs, fought the trail for 26 years.
Investigating this concern in 2008 while at the University of Cincinnati School of Planning, Duygu Karadeniz found that the Little Miami Scenic Trail did affect property values, but in a positive manner. By comparing homes of similar square footage and with similar features, such as bathrooms or finished basements, based on their distance from the trail, Karadeniz found that homes sold for $7 more for every foot they were closer to the trail within a mile of the trail. This means that a home adjacent to the trail would sell for $18,612 more than an identical home which was a half mile away.
The positive effect on property values is not only found on rail trails. The City of Austin, Texas, maintains multiple greenbelts, but locals often to refer to the Barton Creek Greenbelt as “the greenbelt” because of the treasured trails that run along Barton Creek toward the Colorado River. While this trail is now recognized as a community asset, there was once enough opposition to the trail from a wealthy community, near the popular Hill of Life and swimming holes, to restrict community access. Like communities near the Little Miami Scenic Trail, neighborhood groups in Austin believed that the trail would lower their property values.
In a 2005 study, John L. Crompton and Sarah Nicholls found that the effect on properties had as much to do with sight of the trail as the proximity to the trail itself. In two neighborhoods, Barton and Travis, homes adjacent to the greenbelt fetched a sale price of 20 and 6 percent above the neighborhood average. Meanwhile, in a heavily wooded neighborhood, Lost Creek, homes adjacent to the trail without a sightline did not garner a price premium. Surprisingly, the authors concluded that the primary concern of homeowners adjacent to trails, sight of trail activities, seems to be the factor that can raise their property values. Further, this study showed that the increase in tax revenue from the increase in property values provided roughly 5 percent of the annual cost of new trail construction and existing trail maintenance.
Other than property value increases, access to bicycle and pedestrian trails has been shown to benefit a regional economy by reducing healthcare costs and promoting a healthier workforce. When the Walton Family Foundation began investing in regional trails more than 10 years ago, many cities in the region lacked sidewalks outside of downtown areas. After more than $74 million in investments in trails over the past decade and a coordinated approach to securing federal transportation grants, the region is home to one of the country’s most surprising bike booms. Today, over 350 miles of shared-use and mountain biking trails link Fayetteville, Springdale, Bentonville and Rogers to smaller communities and to one another.
While the trail systems have increased tourism to the region, the primary economic return on the investment has been in preventing healthcare related costs. In 2017, the Walton Family Foundation and People For Bikes reported that of the $137 million economic impact to Northwest Arkansas, $86 million was a reduction in healthcare costs.
The key to realizing this value in healthcare costs is the high participation level of cycling in the region. Thanks to its investment in accessible biking infrastructure, a higher percentage of Northwest Arkansas residents cycle daily than those in bike-friendly cities, such as San Francisco, and as a result the region has more pedestrians per capita than heavily populated areas, such as San Diego County. Because the bicycle trails in Northwest Arkansas have been designed for both recreation and transportation, the 2017 report showed that low-to-medium income areas used the trail system at the highest rate.
Given the high level of participation across the socioeconomic spectrum, the Northwest Arkansas trail system has provided healthcare related benefits to the region as a whole. Using The World Health Organization’s Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT), the report demonstrated that a 10 percent increase in miles ridden by residents prevented one death per year and added $8 million in benefits from reduced mortality and prevention of sedentary diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. With a 60 percent increase in miles ridden, the study showed six deaths prevented per year and a $48 million benefit to the region’s economy. In Northwest Arkansas, the over 100 percent increase in miles ridden, created an $86 million economic impact and prevented close to 11 lives lost from chronic disease.
Remarking on the program’s success, Tom Walton, committee chair of the Walton Family Foundation’s Home Region Program said, “While the energy generated by trails and paved paths is palpable across Northwest Arkansas, these findings validate cycling as a regional economic engine that supports local businesses, attracts tourists and builds healthier communities.” Steuart Walton, who partnered with his brother Tom to develop trails in the region said, “Northwest Arkansas is a shining example of the positive impact cycling can have on a community. We hope to inspire other towns and cities by sharing the lessons and impact we’ve observed, such as the importance of quality miles over quantity of miles, the proximity of trails to downtowns and advocating for female and youth cyclists.”
Increases in tourism dollars are the third primary economic effect of trail infrastructure and those tourism dollars are typically spent on lodging, dining, entertainment and specialty equipment stores, such as outdoor shops. The amount of tourism spend per user depends on whether users are local and the degree of trail speciality, with non-local and specialized users spending more per user than other trail tourists. The greatest impact of trail tourism might not be the size of the impact but the way in which that impact is shared by small rural towns and small cities serving as anchors for rural regions.
This rural support was studied in 2008 along the Great Allegheny Passage, a 141-mile bicycle and hiking trail system from Cumberland, Md. to Homestead, Pa., where 800,000 tourists spent more than $40 million in 2008. This spend was more than five times the recorded amount six years prior and was directly tied to the net creation of 93 jobs and $7.5 million in annual wages in the region. Business owners near the trail attributed 25 percent of all revenue to their proximity to the trail.
For regions like Northwest Arkansas, the economic impacts can be even more substantial. In the Walton Family Foundation’s study of the economic impacts of cycling trails in Northwest Arkansas, they found that 90,000 out-of-state mountain biking tourists spent $27 million dollars, or $300 per biker, in 2017 alone. In the mountain biking town of Fruita, Colo., this spend led to a windfall increase in sales tax revenues, which was most pronounced at restaurants and breweries.
While organic tourism will continue to drive economic impact, coordinated events, such as Emporia’s Dirty Konza, Manhattan’s Bleeding Kansas, and the Kandango tour, represent the next opportunity for towns and regions interested in realizing returns on their trail infrastructure. Susan Rathke, executive director of the Emporia Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) puts the impact of last year’s Dirty Kanza weekend at $2.2 million. While the spend over an event weekend is significant, the annual impact is even larger as the event serves as a community branding and marketing opportunity. “Once the [Dirty Kanza] route has been revealed and run, yes, the route and any others in the Flint Hills is what people are coming here to do any day of the year. The Emporia CVB promotes riding 24-7, 365. Those same people stay here, spend money, tell others, and ride to experience gravel and everything gained by riding in the Flint Hills. Our brand is exemplified by this very sport.”
In Manhattan, Marcia Rozell points to events like the Bleeding Kansas and the Little Apple Paddle as prime examples of economic drivers built on trail infrastructure. “At Visit Manhattan, we estimate the economic impact of travel as $362.77 per person per room night. When you have events like the Bleeding Kansas bring in 150 riders in its very first year and the Little Apple Paddle, now in its fifth year, have 368 participants, this is driving real economic impact at hotels, restaurants and retailers like The Pathfinder, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Academy Sports.”
Opportunities for Trail Development
Many existing opportunities exist around Manhattan, Wamego and Junction City for trail access and more are in the works. As a result of successful sales tax funding, the City of Manhattan Parks and Recreation has already begun closing gaps in the trail system. “Two million over 10 years is going to connect trails to create a complete loop with the Linear Trail System,” Aaron Apel said, “but it’s ironic that only two years after passing the tax, Linear Trail is a mess. Our trail system looks like it’s going backwards.” While Apel and others recognize that damage to the trail was the result of a wetter-than-expected winter, many trail users did note the irony of presenting Linear Trail as the linchpin to Manhattan trails and then restricting access to sections of the trail from 2020 to 2025 while the Army Corps of Engineers raises the levee’s height by close to two feet.
In November of 2018, Manhattan Parks and Recreation celebrated the completion of the Old Blue River Path, which connects Linear Trail to the McCall multi-use path. While only three-quarters of a mile in length, this connection links the Northview neighborhood, which has the city’s lowest average household income, to downtown Manhattan, enabling active transportation opportunities for some of the city’s poorest residents. City Commissioner Jerred McKee, a Northview resident, said, “this really adds a sense of equity for my neighbors in the Northview neighborhood that don’t have transportation, they can walk down this trail instead of having to walk adjacent to a busy highway.” However, like Linear Trail, the Old Blue River Path is not paved, leaving it susceptible to damage in wet conditions and leaving many Northview commuters without an active transportation opportunity during wet and winter weather.
In addition to new trail connectors, Manhattan Parks and Recreation is hoping to improve Manhattan’s trail system by filling sidewalk gaps near trailheads, improving drainage in low-lying areas, and improving wayfinding with signage, benches and an emergency wayfinding system. Other planned initiatives would improve connectivity within the city by adding additional trails within city parks and filling sidewalk gaps near parks and indoor recreation centers to enable active transportation when travelling to those locations.
In Wamego and St. George, a proposed pedestrian and bicycle trail that would link the communities to Manhattan, is one of the most sustained pushes for regional trail infrastructure. First conceptualized in 2001, this trail would connect to Manhattan’s Linear Trail, which, when combined, would provide over 25 miles of uninterrupted trail for bikers and pedestrians. Given the work to close existing trail gaps and to link existing parks with bicycle and pedestrian trails in Manhattan, the WAM-SAG-MAN Trail represents a significant opportunity for developing regional trail infrastructure. It’s Achilles Heel, according to Aaron Apel, is its private status. “A privately funded trail: How do you maintain? How do you clean? How do you scoop? How do you do all these things? The ideation was 1,000 percent correct, but we did not have the regional infrastructure in place to work cross-county, through multiple municipalities.”
This reality of trail maintenance is also felt by volunteers with Manhattan Trail Works and the Kansas Trails Council who have built and maintained miles of singletrack in and around Manhattan for decades. Apel says, “Look at the Riverfront Trail. That trail rocks, and the city hasn’t paid a dime for it! It was totally rogue, and it’s some of the best singletrack in the area. Look at the Zoo Trails. They’re some of the best hills you’re going to ride in this area. Our singletrack projects are building, but we’re doing it in this really piecemeal, volunteerism-heavy way, and it isn’t 100 percent sustainable.”
McAllister believes that by highlighting the investment already placed in trails, trail advocates can increase their perceived value. “Some people look at trails as things that get created as if by magic. Someone that doesn’t know the amount of planning and labor involved in making single track trails may tend to take them for granted. Recognizing that there is a vast cooperation of community members of different backgrounds and local government could make it easier for people to understand that these trails are being developed for the betterment of all. This may help some local landowners to see the advantages of allowing the use of small parts of their property to be used by the public so that the trail system can be more interconnected.”
Apel’s hope is that community value will develop into a direct funding model for future trail development and maintenance. “You have to start paying for trails at some point as a municipality to get it done professionally and right and to make sure it’s done quickly in order to keep up with demand. The pieces are in place, but we are not keeping up with demand. We are getting overrun by every other community”
Whether a funding model is developed or not, McAllister believes that we should double down on developing a volunteer network. “It needs to be made clearer why and how our community’s single track trails are being created and maintained. Especially since the majority of single track in Manhattan and at Fancy Creek has been created and maintained by volunteer groups and individual residents. Over decades, numerous people have donated vast amounts of time and effort for something they are very passionate about. Respect and participation in the volunteer process needs to be fostered for a better trail system.”
Trails for Tomorrow
With growing discussion around potential riverfront development in Manhattan and increased interest in regional economic development, many in the region have begun discussing whether a riverfront trail system could link Junction City to Wamego through Manhattan and St. George. As the river has historically linked these communities, a “blue and green” trail on the Kansas River would be a natural addition to the existing Kansas River Trail, a part of the National Water Trails System, and an extension of Manhattan’s River Trails and Linear Trail. Such a trail, would not only serve to link the region’s primary communities, it would serve as the backbone for a multi-use, connected trail system.
For Clint McAllister, those elements, connectivity and broad usability, are key. “I would like to see new trail systems that connect to one another and existing trails,” McAlister said. “A successful trail system would expand the singletrack experience at the same time connecting that experience with paths such as Linear Trail. This would allow people from all over Manhattan to access both other neighborhoods and adventurous trail systems readily.” Tracy Anderson agrees, while urging planners to think of connectivity in local, regional and inter-regional terms. “My dream would be that Linear Trail becomes the hub of a regional multi-use trail system with spokes that connect Manhattan to the Prairie Spirit Trail in eastern Kansas, the Pony Express in Marysville and K-234 north to Nebraska, Council Grove to Emporia in the south, and, in the west, to Salina.” For Darin Miller, blue-green trails are no brainers. “The Flint Hill prairies and rivers are our natural resources. I think all of the rivers should have hiking and biking trails alongside of them. Long term I see a trail system connecting all of our communities, helping people be healthy, not only physically but mentally.”
For Wyatt Thompson, many opportunities remain for regional collaborations. “Conversations about regional trail connectivity are exciting, but still in their infancy in Manhattan. There are certainly great trails in and surrounding Manhattan, but our region is not well connected by trails yet. The WAM-SAG-MAN Trail and a trail to the Tuttle Creek State Park are two important regional connections that would create opportunities for recreation and bring new visitors to Manhattan. Large, regional trails take time to develop. I think connections to Blue Township, or even Wamego, and to the State Park are possibilities in the next 5-10 years. There are advocates for those projects and some elements necessary for those trails are already in place. If one or more sections of those trails are built and open, I think a lot of people will be happy. Partnerships between local and county governments, the Kansas Trails Council and local trail blazers will be essential for these projects to occur.”
While there are many challenges to developing world class regional trail infrastructure in the Flint Hills River Region, including funding, regional cooperation and NIMBYism, it is increasingly understood that innaction around active transportation infrastructure is a failure for economic development when primary employers follow a workforce that can go anywhere. Luckily, this region has an unfair advantage in recruiting the workforce of tomorrow. This region has rivers that run through the prairies of the Flint Hills. This region has miles of gravel and singletrack linking welcoming rural communities. This region has a passionate volunteer network and a young, active population. As regional leaders envision a future as a part of the Region Reimagined initiative, it’s vital that we remember what our Flint HIlls River Region has always been.
Josh Brewer is the agency marketing director at 502, a strategic marketing agency in Manhattan.
Photos by: David Mayes