One pivotal element in Manatee County’s master plan for trails, a document languishing since 2002, appears set for construction in two years thanks to state funding. The recreational, nonmotorized Willow-Ellenton Greenway will be the county’s first section in a network designed to eventually connect to the highly popular trail systems in Sarasota and Hillsborough counties. The 47-mile Pinellas Trail also demonstrates the desirability of recreational trails.
The 17-mile Willow-Ellenton Greenway will link parts of Parrish and further north down into Palmetto and Ellenton, parallel to the Parrish and Palmetto rail corridor and eventually reaching the Hillsborough County line. The greenway would link with Palmetto’s vigorous pursuit of city trails.
Manatee County could never find the money to proceed with the 14-year-old Greenways Master Plan of trails stretching some 80 miles. Last month, the Florida Department of Transportation announced a $511,111 grant to build the Willow-Ellenton Greenway as part of the state’s Shared-Use, Nonmotorized Trails System, created by the Legislature. November’s passage of the county’s half-cent infrastructure sales tax, a portion of which is dedicated to parks and community amenities, should also boost trail development.
The county is also planning some progress on the Gateway Greenway trail, which stretches north-south from Hillsborough to Sarasota counties. This ranked as Manatee’s second highest trail priority.
The county’s high quality of life depends on the green spaces that parks, trails, lakes and every other environmental asset yields. Trails also boost economic development and attract new residents and businesses. The millennial generation, a coveted population for economic growth, is geared toward alternative transportation modes and disdains automobiles. Thus, a county trail system would help address the county’s mobility issues by putting people on bicycles instead of cars, thus easing congestion.
We’ve already been at a competitive disadvantage with our neighboring counties for years. Thirteen months ago, when the county discussed progress on the creation of a parks master plan for green spaces, parks and recreational opportunities, Charlie Hunsicker, county Parks and Natural Resources Department director, admitted the county is “certainly behind our growth curve in providing recreation in an active format to Manatee County.” Back then, the county also stated “that communities that continuously rank in the top ‘best places to live’ have invested significantly in parks and recreational assets.”
A 2013 study conducted by the Urban Land Institute about Manatee County suggested “a comprehensive plan for open space and greenways that effectively connect and link with roadways, parks, culture, shopping and business districts ...”
The 10-mile Legacy Trail in Sarasota County connects communities across the county and links up with the 10-mile Venetian Waterway Park trail, which follows the Intercoastal Waterway down to Charlotte County. The Legacy Trail offers seven trailheads with free parking, numerous rest stops and bicycle repair stations. Manatee would be wise to link with that system.
A year ago, Ohio’s Stark County Bicycle Club sent the county a note of appreciation for the Legacy Trail and cited its economic impact: “Just a note to let you know (the) Stark County Bicycle Club has been in Venice for more than a week. We are making an economic impact on the area. This is the club’s 10th anniversary of visiting Venice in January. We have 40 members in 20 rooms at the Island Sun Hotel, most of us are staying for 2 weeks. We are eating in local restaurants every day. And we are shopping at local merchants.”
Beyond the tourism benefits, a study by American Trails and other organizations outlines other economic benefits: higher property values on homes near trails, increased municipal revenue, and new homebuyers, workers and retirees.
“At the bottom line, parks are a good financial investment for a community,” the American Planning Association concluded in its study.
Headway on the Willow-Ellenton Greenway and Gateway Greenway trails is very encouraging on many fronts — especially for the county’s current cyclists, joggers and nature-loving pedestrians.