Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County supports jobs, quality of life

Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County supports jobs, quality of life
John C. Lorson

Travelers on area trails like the Sippo Valley Trail, which runs between Dalton and Massillon, frequently comment on the beauty and utility of the "tunnel of trees" created as the canopy arches across the trail. In addition to picturesque settings, the trees also provide shade, shelter from the wind and marvelous habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.


Rails-to-Trails of Wayne County is participating in a national program that could lead to more jobs and better trails for the community. There are portions of trail that are missing key connections and people who need jobs in Wayne County, and national groups like American Trails and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy are coordinating efforts to pair trail projects with potential grant opportunities that could fund jobs.

Constructing new rail trails is more complicated than it appears. “You don't just lay down gravel and pave the trail. Engineering, surveying, actual construction of the trail — those are all things we need to do. Usually the contractors and engineers are hired locally,” explained Don Noble II, board president of RTWC.

The engineering can be complex due to the way water flows. “There are three things that are important when you build a trail: drainage, drainage and drainage,” said Becky Jewell, Heartland Trail coordinator.

Altogether, the amount of work and missing trail sections translate to jobs for the workforce.

Right now the missing section in the Heartland Trail in Orrville is RTWC’s "shovel ready" project for American Trails and other national organizations. When completed, the 1.6-mile link will connect from Forrer Road to Allen Avenue through the Orrville industrial park.

RTWC is exploring other funding sources as well, including private donations with their Close the Gap campaign. Governmental and foundation funding also are still an important option. However, some grant programs may have increased during COVID-19 while others have decreased or delayed funding.

Plus, there are other gaps in the Heartland Trail. Another is from Marshallville to the Towpath in Clinton (in Summit County). Here RTWC has good news: It just completed the feasibility study for that section of trail.

“It will give us a road map of how and what it's going take. That could lead us to the next grant. It sets us up for success,” Noble said.

“Plus, the upper corner of the county, Chippewa Township, is in the Akron area," Jewell said. "That means the feasibility study could lead to connections to bike paths in the Akron area.”

With these connections comes opportunity to create new partnerships with groups in the Akron area.

A regional connection to the Akron area could be exciting, as it would give opportunities for more people to access the over 20 miles of existing trails in Wayne County. These existing trails include the County Line Trail (Creston to Rittman), the Sippo Valley Trail (Dalton to Massillon) and the Salt Creek Trail (Fredericksburg to Holmes County Line).

And the time is ripe for these new trail sections because trail usage has been up during the pandemic.

After listening to national webinars on trail usage during the pandemic, Jewell said, “They give examples of groups with trail counters that are permanently on the nation-wide trails, and they’re seeing a 200% increase. That includes people who walk, bicycles and a lot of family groups out.”

Noble said RTWC does have some anecdotal evidence that Wayne County trail use also is up around 200% from this time last year.

Recreation and exercise are not the only benefits from using the rail trails. The trails are considered safer than county roads. “People with young children often don't want to be on the road, where cars go pretty fast,” Noble said.

Another benefit of the trail is the scenic view and the opportunities for seeing wildlife. "You see wildlife that you wouldn't normally see if you were just walking on a sidewalk," Noble said. “In the northeast part of Wayne County, we have huge wetlands. We hear that there are bald eagles up in that area.”

Bald eagles are just one of many types of birds that can be seen along the trail. “My niece is a Girl Scout and needed a project for her gold award. She'll put up 12 bluebird houses,” Jewell said.

Rail trails can be used for transportation as well, which is why much funding comes from the Department of Transportation. Since 2008 Orrville resident John Lorson has commuted by bicycle to work in Millersburg 25 miles each way, via a mix of county roads and rail trails.

“I ride year round. The coldest I've encountered was minus-2 degrees and the hottest at right around 100 for the ride home,” said Lorson, who writes about his journeys along the trail for The Bargain Hunter. “For me, the time I spend on the bike is a meditation. Twice a day I can get entirely into my own head and work on things. There are times when the world just unfolds around me like a film documentary of small-town American life.”

Plus, there’s a practical component. “The idea of saving money on gasoline and sparing a couple hundred miles of wear and tear on my truck every week aren't lost on me either,” Lorson said.

And that’s the ripple effect of benefits for the community. By securing funding to create new sections of trail, there are likely more jobs and more opportunities for improving quality of life across the county.

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