Hundreds of community residents including mayors, city administrators and business owners gathered outside the Missouri State Capitol on Friday to put a face on those who will benefit when the 144-mile Rock Island rail line is converted to a cross-state walking and biking trail.

The rally was organized by Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc., the Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, but the overwhelming community support for the trail was the true motivator.

“Communities, companies and individuals want to partner with Missouri State Parks to get the trail operational as fast as possible,” said Greg Harris, executive director of the Missouri Rock Island Trail, Inc. “What’s at stake for central Missouri and these towns is tangible — tourism, business opportunities, community improvement and recreation. All of us who live along this corridor know the potential that the trail offers and we are ready for it to be built.”

Public officials, including mayors from Stover, Versailles, Owensville and Gerald and administrators and aldermen from Windsor, Pleasant Hill, Belle and Union, urged the trail would bring value to their towns both in terms of tourism and revenue — putting them on the map as hubs that connect to the famed Katy Trail. Business owners and residents from towns along the route, including the owners of Chilhowee Corner Store, Leeton General Store and Bluebird Outdoor Adventures in Cole Camp, spoke about the opportunities the trail would bring.

“We’ve seen firsthand the power of rail-trails in Missouri — the Katy Trail is beloved and generates millions in annual revenue for the state,” said Liz Thorstensen, vice president of trail development at Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. “The Rock Island Trail has the potential to amplify those benefits, connecting 23 communities and creating new tourism and economic development opportunities for thousands of Missourians. This is a once-in-history chance to build something truly iconic.”

The Department of Natural Resources is considering whether or not to accept Ameren’s donation of the 144-mile stretch of the former Rock Island rail line, which has been inoperable since the 1980s. The state is currently collecting public comments about the project and will make a decision by February of 2018.