Meetings to discuss recreational trail connecting Merrill to Wausau

BY TINA L. SCOTT
EDITOR

Members of the Friends of the River Bend Trail in Merrill have long dreamed of extending the trail all the way to Wausau to the south and to Tomahawk to the north, and now initial planning has begun to determine the feasibility and planning for just such an extension, and they are inviting the public to learn more and provide input.
Two meetings are being held, one in Lincoln County and the other in Marathon County, to explore the possibility of connecting the cities of Merrill and Wausau via a recreational trail. The Lincoln County Forestry, Land, and Parks Department (LCFLPD) and the Marathon County Parks, Recreation, and Foresty Department (MCPRFD) are inviting community members in both cities and counties to engage in trail master planning efforts, ask questions, and learn more at the meetings.
The Merrill meeting will be held Thursday, June 20, 2024, from 6-7:30 p.m. in the Lincoln County Board Room 255/257 at 801 N. Sales St. in Merrill.
The Wausau meeting will be held Thursday, June 27, 2024, from 6-7:30 p.m. in Eastgate Hall at Marathon Park, 801 Garfield Ave. in Wausau.
“MSA, our engineer, is in the initial planning for a pathway for the trail between Merrill and Wausau,” said Greg Hartwig, Vice President of the River District Development Foundation (RDDF) in Merrill and a member of the Friends of the River Bend Trail.
Over the past eight months, the RDDF has had discussions with LCFLPD Administrator Dean Bowe and MCPRFD Director Jamie Polley about an off-road trail between Merrill and Wausau, Hartwig said. “RDDF, Marathon and Lincoln Counties, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and other parties have had numerous meetings.”
“RDDF has designated $95,000 to pay MSA for an engineering study and to determine a route between Merrill and Wausau near County Highway W,” he said. “MSA will determine a route and alternative routes.”
“Jon Krohn, President of the RDDF, investigated a possible route using an easement from Wisconsin Public Service that existed for a trolley route between Merrill and Wausau 100 years ago. The trolley route never happened, most likely due to vehicles becoming more prevalent,” Hartwig said. The preferred route along CTH W is near the railroad tracks, along the 50-foot WPS easement, and that easement covers approximately 95 percent of the distance. “Once a route has been established, contact will be made with any private landowners. Approximately five percent of the route has private landowners; the rest is on the trolley easement,” he said.
“This route is in the State of Wisconsin Bicycle Trail Plan,” Hartwig said. “All stakeholders are trying to make this happen. The gap between Wausau and Tomahawk is the missing link for the State Bicycle Trail. We are working on the Wausau to Merrill section first. Once this missing section is completed, people will be able to bike from Green Bay to Superior.”
Development of this type would enhance recreational opportunities and have economic benefits for the communities along the route, Hartwig explained. “Young people want this type of recreation in their communities, and we hope to attract people to Marathon and Lincoln Counties,” he said. “We project bicyclists will travel this route and stay in various communities along the way.”
MSA is slated to complete the engineering study and route, along with alternative routes and identifying challenges, in 2024. “Bill Bertram has been instrumental in getting this project going,” Hartwig said. “He made contact with the UW-Platteville engineering class. The professor will be using his class to draw up the construction plans as a class project.”
This partnership provides huge benefits for both students and the RDDF. “This will save us a lot of money, as these are very expensive to create,” Hartwig said. And students “really enjoy working on a real project.”
Hartwig anticipates that, if all goes well, construction on the trail extension could begin in 2025 or 2026, with the route being constructed in phases until its completion. “The timetable is very dependent on MSA, landowners, and donors to help fund the project,” he said. “The informational meetings will give insight to the proposed project. And if people have questions, that will be the place to ask.”
“In 2025 we plan on doing fundraising for the trail.” Hartwig said.
Of course, early fundraising efforts by private individuals or entities is always welcome. Recently, Westside Market in Merrill held a Right to Purchase Bourbon Raffle to help raise money for the project. Store owners Mark Raymer and Ryan Peacock raised $1,750 with their raffle and then matched the fundraiser dollar for dollar, bringing their total donation to $3,500.

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