The Razorback Greenway just turned 4 years old and is changing the way Northwest Arkansans live 1 mile at a time.
The trail extends more than 37 miles north to south from south of Mercy Way in Bella Vista to Town Branch Trail in south Fayetteville.
The greenway connects six downtowns, three hospitals, 23 schools, the University of Arkansas, and the Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson corporate offices, according to Elizabeth Bowen, Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission project manager.
The path also provides access to entertainment venues, shopping areas, historic sites, parks, playgrounds, lakes and neighborhoods.
The plan for the greenway's development took into account where people were and where they wanted to go, she said.
"You had the Bentonville trails, and you had the Fayetteville trails, and you had a big gap," said Jeff Hawkins, the commission's executive director.
The greenway cost $30 million to develop and was paid for with a $15 million federal grant and a $15 million matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation, he said.
Construction began in 2011 and the trail opened in May 2015, Hawkins said.
"It really ties the region together," said Tim Conklin, commission programs manager. "People experience other cities and parts of the region that they really didn't get to see before."
"The idea of the Razorback Greenway connectivity from north to south, the whole length of it, was unique," said Erin Rushing, Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers executive director. "We didn't have a continuous piece of greenway trail like that."
NWA Trailblazers is a nonprofit organization helping develop multiuse trails in the region.
"Our trail from Bella Vista Lake to basically Krispy Kreme in south Bentonville was in place," said David Wright, Bentonville Parks and Recreation director.
Fayetteville had 5 miles of trail established at Scull Creek, which was later renamed to be part of the Razorback Greenway, said Connie Edmonston, Fayetteville Parks and Recreation director.
The concept of a regional path was new for the region, Edmonston said, but Fayetteville has been invested in the cycling culture since 1978.
"We started it on our own," she said. "It was when Northwest Regional Planning Commission got involved, and then they got the Walton family involved, that it took it off and got us to where we are today."
A 2017 Northwest Arkansas Trail Usage Monitoring Report done by the Walton Family Foundation examined data collected by San Diego State University during May and July 2017.
The study showed average daily weekday bicycle volumes per site increased about 32%, from 142 daily cyclists to 187 cyclists, from 2015 to 2017. Use increased about 14% on weekends, from 296 cyclists to 336 cyclists.
The amount of people walking on the trails during that time increased as well.
The average daily weekday pedestrian volume increased about 5%, from 141 to 166 pedestrians. Use increased about 19% on weekends, from 171 to 203 pedestrians.
"It's met and exceeded expectations, and I don't know that anybody really thought that it would be what it is," Hawkins said. "There were expectations that this was really going to be great, but it's better than great."
Heightened use has increased collaboration between the cities, Wright said.
City parks and recreation directors are able to work together to create recreational opportunities unique to the greenway, he said, such as the annual Square to Square Bike Ride.
About 2,000 people attended the 2019 ride on Sept. 7, Edmonston said. Participants rode about 30 miles from the downtown square in Bentonville to Fayetteville's square.
Wright said the connectivity has created a healthier rivalry between Northwest Arkansas cities.
"I feel like the Razorback Greenway really dimmed the lights that we shine really bright on Friday nights during football season," Wright said. "These towns really are partners, and I think that is the thing that's exceeded my expectations more than anything."
The greenway is also influencing the region's economy, said Mervin Jebaraj, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas.
"Probably one of the most significant impacts has been how much it has made bicycling in Northwest Arkansas an important economic activity -- so much so that people are coming here from other parts of the country," Jebaraj said.
The greenway has resulted in about $27 million in tourism dollars coming into the region annually, he said.
"They're not just here riding the trials. They're eating in restaurants, they're staying in hotels," Jebaraj said. "There's quite a bit of tourism impact, and we have a lot of other tourism amenities like Crystal Bridges and things for them to incorporate into their stay here."
The development of the trails is making the region more holistic from a tourism perspective, he said.
"It's a segment of the tourism economy that's genuinely well-heeled," Jebaraj said of biking.
The region would benefit more from further developing the bicycling infrastructure, he said.
"We have developed a reputation for bicycling in Northwest Arkansas," he said. "It's something that cities will need to invest in going forward."
Springdale's segment of the Razorback Greenway was the catalyst for revitalizing downtown, said Bill Rogers, Springdale Chamber of Commerce communications and special projects vice president.
"I think everyone agrees that the first domino that fell in Springdale's ongoing downtown revitalization was when the Razorback Greenway was announced and the subsequent construction of it," he said. "It runs through the heart of our downtown."
Economic development follows people, he said.
"It started the process of bringing people downtown, which made it easier for small entrepreneurs to open and try to capture some of that business," Rogers said.
Municipal developments followed, he said. Some of the efforts include the addition of city parks, the demolition of dilapidated buildings and business renovations.
He said the momentum shows evidence of continuing.
"We're going to continue to see commercial and retail build out," Rogers said. "The next thing that will need to happen, and it will happen as the market will bear, is improve residential opportunities downtown."
Mayor Peter Christie said he anticipates Bella Vista's business development to benefit much the same way Springdale's did as the greenway extends farther into the city. The latest segment added about a mile in 2018 from the tip of Lake Bella Vista into Blowing Springs, he said.
Trails in the city will include creating a spur from where the Razorback Greenway ends at Blowing Springs to the Metfield Recreation Complex on Club House Drive, Christie said.
"It's a couple of miles, and it's fairly flat," he said. "There are 3,600 homes with service all along there that's within easy bicycling distance."
Additional plans include widening Mercy Way Bridge from two lanes to four with a fully dedicated bicycle path on one side and a pedestrian walkway on the other, Christie said.
The addition of the bike lane on the bridge will provide students with a safe path to school, Christie said.
The bridge project is estimated to cost about $6 million, and will be paid for partly with federal grants, Christie said. The city's portion is estimated to be about $1.5 million, he said.
The trail to the recreation complex is still in the design phase. Both projects are estimated to be completed by 2022, he said.
Christie said he hopes investors will see the potential and develop businesses along the greenway.
"One of the challenges that we have as a community, is we don't have a lot of commercial development," he said.
"It's putting us on the map," Christie said of the greenway. "It's getting the residents yet another amenity. It's safe, it's healthy, and I am convinced it's going to continue to bring all the residents of our community even closer."
Metro on 09/16/2019
Print Headline: 4-year-old intercity trail a path toward future in NW Arkansas