Missouri State Parks has until December 31 to work out an agreement with Ameren’s Missouri Central Railroad to manage the Rock Island Trail. If converted to a recreational trail, the 144-mile abandoned rail corridor from Windsor to Beaufort would connect with the Katy Trail to form a 450-mile loop across the state, elevating Missouri as an international travel destination.

The project has drawn broad support from the public and the state legislature — as well as some concern. Still, an overwhelming majority of Missouri lawmakers voted in May to create a Rock Island Trail State Park Endowment Fund.

For more than two years, Missouri State Parks has been studying the feasibility of funding, development, and maintenance of the trail. The December deadline is the fourth extension given by the federal Surface Transportation Board.

“I’m hopeful that we will not have to ask for another extension,” said Mike Sutherland, deputy director of Missouri State Parks.

State Parks’ decision hinges largely on the potential for funding and partnerships to build the trail, estimated to cost $65 to $85 million.

“One of our biggest challenges is making sure we can take care of the park system that we have,” said Sutherland. “While the corridor is a great opportunity to add to that, we don’t have the capacity to do it without a lot of help.”

Advocates expect the project will attract support from grants, community partnerships, and philanthropic gifts. Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc. (MoRIT) has collected more than $600,000 in pledges for construction.

“Many towns have expressed interest in partnering with State Parks to provide maintenance and security, and adjacent city parks can serve as trailheads,” said Greg Harris, executive director of MoRIT.

Just 10 miles north of Lake of the Ozarks, the city of Eldon is one example of a community that could partner with State Parks. Eldon’s master plan will invest in the section that runs through the city, building on Rock Island Park and the rail depot.

“Our vision is to renovate the depot into a welcome center and trailhead,” said Matt Davis, superintendent of Eldon School District. “We want to make the Rock Island hub the center of our community and get more people walking and biking. We’ve already raised $40,000.” A donor has pledged up to $150,000 in matching funds for the project.

Visitors would bring new economic life to towns on the old rail line. A 2012 study estimated the economic impact of Katy Trail State Park at $18.5 million per year. Since the 47-mile Rock Island Spur to Pleasant Hill made Windsor an overnight destination in 2016, new restaurants have opened and Windsor’s lodging capacity has more than doubled.

Restaurants, lodging, and stores along the corridor are already expanding, and new businesses are waiting in the wings. In Rosebud, Terry Schnelting hopes to open the Rock Island Bed & Breakfast by the end of the year.

“Probably three times a week someone pulls in to ask if I’m open,” Schnelting said.

“If State Parks would accept the trail with the idea of turning these communities loose, I think they’ll find all kinds of funding,” said Rick Peth, president of MoRIT. “Communities could work together to connect the dots.”

Author: Janice Branham is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.