City overcomes challenges
By John Faucher
A long-range plan to safely connect a 24-mile long Newtown Blackmour State Trail with New London has been in the making since 2003.
The trail is open to foot traffic, bicycling, snowmobiling and horseback riding. It is named after the communities it was intended to run through, including New London, Shiocton, Black Creek and Seymour.
The longest portion of the trail from New London’s outskirts at House Road to Seymour officially opened in 2014, after nearly a decade of planning, meetings, fundraising and budget discussions.
For trail enthusiasts and New London officials, the most difficult mile remained, bringing the trail westward from House Road into Pfeifer Park near downtown.
New London City Administrator Chad Hoerth said planning for this section of trail encountered various obstacles over the past decade.
Many stakeholders would have to find agreement on a plan in order to connect the trail from House Road to River Road.
The city worked with two counties, the railroad, Wisconsin Department of Transportation and nearby businesses and residents.
The sections of trail developed by Outagamie County, to the east, utilized the “Rails to Trail” program, while the section from House Road going west, involved an active “Rails with Trail” application and a very narrow right away.
Additional challenges included working around two major highway corridors, and wetlands, which greatly increased the project’s price tag, said Hoerth.
Plans to extend the trail into the city limits became financially infeasible and those dreams sat on the shelf for years.
A few years ago the state of Wisconsin recalled funding that municipalities previously used for Revolving Business Loans. A provision of that change allowed municipalities to reapply for those funds for Community Development Block Grant eligible projects.
Hoerth said at that time, Kara Holman, head of Outagamie County’s Development and Land Services Department, approached the city and assisted in a proposal that New London could apply for the county’s CDBG funding to make the section of trail a reality.
In the end, the city was awarded around $800,000 in grant funding.
“Without that funding, this project would never have gotten off the ground,” said Hoerth at the ribbon cutting.
With funding secured, the city began working on design plans for the trail.
Initial designs along State Highway 54 required changes in plans while at the same time an ongoing dialogue with Canadian National RailRoad on the right of way were delayed after a section of track sold to WATCO.
“On our end, the clock was ticking, the grant had timelines in place and we needed to complete the construction of the trail by October of 2022,” said Hoerth.
The project had already gone out to bid and the city selected the lowest bidder, yet it couldn’t award a contract without a signed railroad agreement.
“It was a little scary if we were actually going to get an agreement with WATCO, but at the 11th hour we did get an agreement signed,” explained Hoerth.
The next challenge was time.
The bids were about to expire and the contractor no longer felt they could complete the work within the grant timeline and they pulled their bid.
“At that point it felt like the house of cards was falling apart,” said Hoerth.
The city requested an extension from the state and they granted it.
As Hoerth stood on the newly developed trail section last week, he thanked all of the partners involved in making it happen.
“It challenged us at every turn,” he said. “There are lots of stakeholders with this project, but together we got it done.”
HOerth said the city handing the baton to Ginger Sowle, director of Parks and Recreation, who is working on the next phase to get the Newtown Blackmour State Trail over the Embarrass River and connect it into the city’s trail system.