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In Duluth, skiers (and bikers, hikers, climbers and others) step up to build trails

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A group of people ski in Duluth.
Retired Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall leads dozens of young Nordic skiers on a workout at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center in western Duluth, at the base of Spirit Mountain, in mid-November.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Earlier this month, Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist Kikkan Randall stood on a Nordic ski track in Duluth, surrounded by dozens of brightly clad young skiers, from elementary to college-age. 

"You ready to have some fun?” she asked. 

They responded with an affirmative whoop, stepped into their skis, and followed Randall as she swooped down hills, flew around tight curves and ended with a lunge imitation of her former teammate — and Minnesota native — Jessie Diggins. 

The entire scene made Kari Hedin and Annalisa Peterson, former board presidents of the Duluth Cross Country Ski Club, want to pinch themselves. 

"It’s like seeing the thing we thought was not possible, actually in real life," said Peterson. 

Nearly a decade ago, facing warmer winters and increasingly inconsistent snowfall, the club first approached the city of Duluth about building a trail with the capacity to make artificial snow. 

But the electrical and plumbing infrastructure needed for that type of trail is expensive. The initial estimate came in at nearly $2 million. So the city challenged the club to raise $250,000 to help pay for it. 

"And we thought that was ridiculous,” recalled Peterson. “We thought there was no way we could do that. In part it was a philosophical shift, the club had never done anything like that." 

But they did it — and last winter the first phase of the Grand Avenue Nordic Center opened at the base of the Spirit Mountain alpine ski area. Over time, though, the estimated cost to finish the project doubled. The final tally is now about $4 million. 

So the club has steadily ramped up its fundraising goals, bringing in Diggins last winter, and Randall this year, to stoke excitement and nudge local skiers to open their checkbooks. 

"I think we had to get over our ‘Minnesota Nice’ a little bit,” said Peterson. None of us are comfortable asking the people that we know for money. “Repeatedly,” chimed in Hedin. “‘It’s me again. Care to donate?’"

But, time and again, people have donated. Randall's visit alone generated more than $150,000. All together, the club has now raised over $800,000 in less than five years to build the trail and infrastructure for snow-making and lighting. 

And they're not alone. 

Groups of mountain bikers, climbers, horseback riders and others in Duluth and around the state have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help build and maintain other projects, from trails to parks to an ice climbing venue. 

A cross country skier is greeted by fans.
Olympic gold medal-winning cross-country skier Kikkan Randall greets fans at an event at the Grand Avenue Nordic Center in Duluth on Nov. 16. Randall helped the Duluth cross-country ski club raise more than $150,000 to help pay for the new ski trail and artificial snow-making system.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

In Rochester, skiers are raising $150,000 to help match state grants to build a Nordic trail there with snow-making capabilities. 

"In a broader perspective, it's incredibly important for parks and trails across the state,” said Renee Mattson, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission, which has provided matching state grants to projects in Rochester, Duluth and elsewhere around the state with funding from the state Legacy Fund.  

“Because so many government entities, when they get stressed, what falls out of favor? Maintenance, often, in parks, and the operations in parks,” she said. “And friends groups have in many cases picked up the slack."

The Duluth Traverse

That's exactly what happened in Duluth in 2008, when the recession forced the city to cut dozens of parks staff, and nearly close the beloved Chester Bowl kids’ downhill ski program. 

But a nonprofit group rallied to save it. "People care so much about that program,” said Don Ness, who was Duluth’s mayor at the time, “that they are willing to then go above and beyond any reasonable expectation for citizen involvement.”

That success laid the groundwork for a subsequent partnership with local mountain bike club COGGS — Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores — to build a 104-mile trail, called the Traverse, across the length of the city. 

When the club approached Ness, he said the city could play a role. The city initially pledged to contribute $100,000 annually from its parks fund. 

"But you guys are the experts,” Ness recalled telling them. “You should drive this thing. But with that comes responsibility. You're going to need to raise money. You're going to need to find the volunteers to maintain these, and demonstrate that you have a community of support that is large enough and vital enough and active enough to support this long term." 

Since then, COGGS has raised more than $1 million to build about 88 miles of the Traverse. That's supplemented more than $2 million dollars in local, state and federal funding.

Club members also log hundreds of miles of volunteer hours a year to maintain the sprawling network of trails. 

Ness and others say public-private partnerships like this are becoming more commonplace, as funders increasingly look for local buy-in. 

The Rochester Active Sports Club says its commitment to raising $150,000 was key to securing a $1 million state Legacy grant to support the construction of the first phase of a Nordic ski loop with artificial snow-making at the city’s Gamehaven Reservoir park. 

“They look to see if there’s a strong community involvement,” said club president Michael O’Connor. “I think you have to show that you have some skin in the game in order to convince these groups that you’re worth funding.” 

It’s also happening nationwide, especially on federal land, where government investment in outdoor recreation has dwindled, said Ray Rasker, president of Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Mont., nonprofit that researches and promotes trails as economic development assets. 

Local and state taxpayers are increasingly footing the bill, through initiatives like Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, which voters passed a decade ago to support environmental and natural resource investments, including parks and trails projects. But nonprofit groups also play a vital role. 

“I’m just amazed at the amount of volunteer labor that goes into actually physically building the trails,” said Rasker. “A lot of people are very passionate about this. They do two things, they vote to tax themselves, and they grab a shovel and go out there and go work on it.”

Investing in community

In Duluth, the Traverse mountain bike trail became a model to fund 25 other projects along the St. Louis River, an initiative launched by Ness to create new outdoor amenities in western Duluth. 

The city has raised $18 million in bonds through the extension of a half-percent sales tax on food and lodging, that it hopes to grow to $50 million by leveraging state and federal grants and local fundraising. 

Proceeds from the tax have been earmarked for the new Nordic ski center and sections of the Traverse. Tax revenue is also contributing to the construction of equestrian trails, a disc golf course, several walking trails and paddling access points to the river.

It’s also going toward local parks and community centers, where even tiny neighborhood clubs are fundraising and donating their own time and labor. “Say there’s a contractor who lives in that neighborhood,” said Duluth parks planner Jim Shoberg, “who may provide $5,000 in machine time.” Or community groups might use pull tabs to fundraise, he said. It all helps. 

The most unique project, said Shoberg, is the city’s newest park: Quarry Park, an abandoned hard rock quarry that’s long attracted ice climbers who scale the sheets of ice that cascade down its walls in winter.

The Duluth Climbers Coalition formed five years ago to pitch the idea of a park to the city, complete with an ice farming system to supplement natural-forming ice in the winter. 

The city agreed to kick in $210,000 from the sales tax. The coalition raised $50,000. Initially, their motivation was “selfish,” admitted the group’s vice president, Dave Pagel. They were only interested in the climbing infrastructure. 

But as they talked to residents of the surrounding neighborhood, they learned that it wasn’t just climbers who loved and visited the quarry. Generations of people had grown up playing on the rocks. 

“We had a guy who sent us $500,” said Pagel, “a 90-year-old guy from Moose Lake who happened to read about our efforts. He sent us money because this was a childhood playground of his,” and he wanted to see it preserved. 

As they learned about the quarry’s importance to the broader community, Pagel said the group shifted its efforts. It built an accessible trail into the quarry, and a network of other trails around it. Climbers worked with a local group to put in a disc golf course. 

City officials say they’ve intentionally balanced investments in amenities like mountain bike trails or a climbing park with parks and trails that have a broader community appeal, to enhance the quality of life in neighborhoods while also building projects designed to attract tourists and lure young professionals to Duluth. 

Ness said the work is possible because it harnesses people’s passion — something that doesn’t exist for, say, filling potholes. 

“But what people are passionate about is their public spaces,” Ness said. “And we've been able to tap into people's sense of pride and ownership and enthusiasm for their sports and translate that into a public good that will not only be available to the broader community, but for generations to come.”