Leelanau County Student Wants to Connect Trail Systems

Empire native is now U-M student in Urban Planning

An idea to link two popular trail systems in Leelanau County is gaining traction thanks to the work of a college student.Trails 3

That student is a Leelanau County native and grew up in Empire, but he’s studying Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. Rowan Brady says, the idea came to him over the past year after spending a lot more time outdoors during COVID. “A lot of people including myself were really focused more towards outdoor activities. I really saw the opportunity in both the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and the Leelanau Trail as a great benefit to the county.” He says, “As I was biking along the trails I really wished that the two trails were connected so I ride from one side to the other.”

“Although two trails are popular in their own right they do remain disconnected. The Leelanau Trail on the east side of the county and the Heritage Trail on the west side of the county.”

Trails 5Brady wants to use what he’s learning in Urban Planning to improve the trail system in his native Leelanau County. His goal is to figure out a way to connect the two trails. It’s something that TART Trails has had their eyes on for years. Chris Cushman is the TART Trails Planning and Management Director. “You talk about the Leelanau Trail or the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, the conversation usually evolves to how to link the two.”

The two trails are roughly 30 miles apart, and geography in the county is a major challenge. Brady says there is “a significant gap between the two. Especially Lake Leelanau poses a big challenge in connecting the two trails. Because obviously you can’t build a bike path across the lake. so you do have to figure out a way around Lake Leelanau.”Trails 2

TART Trails says there are other obstacles – like the rolling hills throughout the county – and the pure logistics. Cushman says, “The additional challenges are securing the land to place the trail on. And then of course, funding. That’s always a big piece of the puzzle.”

Rowan Brady says besides the obvious public health and environmental benefits, there is also an economic argument to be made for joining the two trails together. “It presents a really interesting opportunity not only for expanding non-motorized infrastructure in the county, but also an interesting economic development opportunity. Research has shown that businesses that are located near non-motorized trails do see an increase in (business) up to 40%-60% of retail sales improve after a non-motorized trail opens.”

Trails 1Brady is launching a feasibility study and public survey as part of his class project. “It’s really the first step in a larger process, where we’re really determining what is the best way to connect the trails. This particular process is light on design details intentionally, because that’s a step that comes later on in the process.”

Cushman applauds Brady’s involvement and his motivation to push the idea forward. He says public input will be important. “Where people want to access the trail, how they want to connect, where or how they’re going to use it. Are they going to use it for recreation, are they going to use it for transportation? And then weigh in on some of the different routes.”

Brady says there are four potential routes as the priority options – but that’s the whole reason behind getting public input. “This project is really setting up work later on. So it will be turned over to TART for them to take through the next steps.” Cushman welcomes the partnership. “I’ll celebrate that. And take that information and we will put it to good use for sure.”Trails 4

And even though the project ends this semester, the discussion will continue. Brady hopes to be around in some way when it’s time to take action. “I would definitely love to be involved either as a professional or as a resident of Leelanau County.”

You can check out the specifics of the design options and offer your feedback here.