The Raccoon River Valley Trail continues to deliver more riders and economic benefit to Perry one year after the completion of a 72-mile loop that comes through Perry, which is part of the much larger trail system.
“Last year the numbers really dropped off after RAGBRAI came through,” says Perry City Administrator Butch Niebuhr.
But this year, even with riders heading to other parts of the state to do the annual ride, the number of trail riders has stayed steady, even during the week of the ride.
Trail counters installed in 2012 give a sense of traffic, even though the numbers can’t be considered exact because the counter doesn’t differentiate between riders and deer.
Trail numbers in July have risen from 1,394 in July 2012 to 3,817 in July of this year. June numbers for this year were even higher at 4,406.
“What we are seeing on the trail this year are more organized rides,” Niebuhr says.
Some rides are originating in Perry, such as the Thielen Memorial Ride, held for the second time this summer.
Other rides originate in other trail towns, like the first Baccoon Ride, Niebuhr says. The ride began and ended in Waukee, passing through the trail loop towns. Every town had some kind of bacon-eating event, including Perry.
“Perry had the main brunt of people stop during the ride because it started raining about the time they reached town. People took refuge in restaurants and bars and hung around Perry for a while,” Niebuhr says.
He noted that the Hotel Pattee is holding specials for groups that stay at the hotel and then ride.
“The other day, about 30 retired people stayed in the Hotel and rode the RRVT the day they arrived, drove over to Woodward to do the High Trestle Trail and then rode again the next day before heading home,” he says. “They ate supper at a restaurant in Woodward, ate breakfast at the hotel and lunch on the trail.”
Niebuhr says there are “disorganized rides” as well, as when one group of five or six couples decides to ride together. If he sees them first thing in the morning, it means they are probably doing the entire loop and will be getting back to Perry in the afternoon.
“This morning I saw my first riders at 7 a.m. I’m not sure whether they were doing the whole loop. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere. They just sat by the caboose and then took off again,” Niebuhr says.
He also says the trail is used by all age groups.
“I see little kids with their parents, all the way up to teenagers and retired people using the trail as well,” Niebuhr says.
Mike Wallace, Dallas County conservation director, sends Perry notices every time he learns about a ride on the trail. Rides were used to raise money for many different causes, including heart and lung diseases. One ride started in West Des Moines and was planned as a 100-mile loop, which means they came through Perry to do the whole ride.
“We do have some business district signs on the trail, but we need to do a better job of signage to businesses and services here in town,” Niebuhr says. “I talked to a guy the other day who was looking for a Kum and Go. I also directed him to other restaurants in town.”
Another indication of bike traffic is the number of bikes that can be seen in the downtown bike racks, particularly on the weekend.
“If you go downtown you see bike racks in a lot of locations, and you see bikes all the time,” he says.
Perry resident Dave Hubbard, who just moved back to Iowa from Washington state, headed out on the trail in Perry on a recent evening.
“My sons and I will do the trail. I’m 62 on Halloween, and I need the exercise,” Hubbard says.
Sheyla Mendoza, 17, and Wilburt Castillo, 14, both of Perry, rode a portion of the trail recently, ending at the Perry trailhead at Caboose Park where they ate snacks and rested.
Castillo says he and some friends were headed out on a Sunday evening in August.
“We wanted to see how far we could go on the trail,” he says. “We got a ways out, and then it got too late and we had to turn back or we would be late for church.”
Niebuhr and his wife have been trail riders for the last few years, riding to Dawson, Jamaica, Herndon, Dallas Center and Minburn. They have also gone to Woodward to ride the High Trestle Trail.
Bob Wilson, director at the Perry Chamber of Commerce, has a front-row seat to the trail impact he sees in Perry.
“I see people coming and going on the trail out my window at work (in Perry City Hall). It is kind of amazing. There are still some naysayers in town who don’t believe the trail helps Perry. I invite them to come to my office and watch for a couple hours,” Wilson says. “We just finished up the Baccoon ride, which drew 2,900 registered riders and more than 3,000 riders if you estimate how many riders went along on the ride but didn’t register.”
The Chamber estimates that the people on the ride spent a total of $563,000 toward gas, food and lodging, much of that in Perry.
“We are getting huge events along the trail that are bringing tons of people of all ages to small communities,” he says. “I think we haven’t even barely tapped into the potential tourism dollars from cyclists yet.”
He noted that one downtown business, a women’s clothing store, is seeing business from cyclists who come in and shop then roll up the clothing they purchase, put it in their bike bags and head back out to the trail.
The future: Connecting to the High Trestle Trail and the arts
The future of the RRVT, which could have a huge impact on Perry, includes connecting Perry to the High Trestle Trail. The trailhead for the High Trestle Trail is in Woodward.
Officials from Perry, Woodward and Dallas County Conservation are working on the connection.
Wallace says the county is working with landowners to acquire the land needed for the extension.
“We will follow the old railroad right of way where it still exists and find other paths where it is no longer there,” he says.
He expects the trail to be completed in three to five years.
Chuck Offenburger of Jefferson, an avid rider, writer and an inaugural member of the RRVT who now volunteers for many events related to the trail, says the first estimate for the High Trestle Trail connection is about $5 million.
“The goal is to build an off-road trail as scenic as can be made between Perry and Woodward,” Offenburger says. “One thing that has happened is that with the popularity of the RRVT in the last eight years, as well as the High Trestle Trail, there is a lot more support for recreational trails. Our trail is considered to be among the most successful trails in the country.”
Recreational trails such as the RRVT and the High Trestle Trail are tremendous economic drivers and have a very strong impact on the communities they run through, he says.
Rider traffic on the High Trestle trail is 10,000-15,000 a month. Connecting to the trail would bring a lot more traffic through town, Niebuhr says.
“We just rolled out the stuff for REAP Grant to start the trail connection from Perry to Woodward and Woodward put in for a REAP Grant to put a trail in town to connect,” he says. “We have done a lot of in-town trail stuff, and we are doing some more to get that connection going.”
Offenburger says there is a new interest by the towns and the trail board to install works of art along the trail is taking hold.
“We want to do a coordinated, unified art installation of public art theme along the trail,” he says.
Artist David B. Dahlquist of Des Moines, who designed the notable High Trestle Trail Bridge, is part of the art plan. He has been picked to create a piece relevant to “in the shadow of the rails.” It will be more than 300 feet long and will use steel, lights and stone, as well as ceramic glaze, in a railroad theme.
“It will be a million-dollar installation, and they hope to be building it next year. And we plan to play off that theme along the Raccoon River Valley Trail system,’’ Offenburger says. “We are really excited about it.”