The Friends of Berrien County Trails (FBCT) has been spearheading the development of the first county-wide trails plan since 2019. The plan is referred to as Berrien County Trails Master Plan, and the Berrien County Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution to support the plan on Dec. 1, 2022 moving the project forward.
Master Plan overview
The Friends of Berrien County Trails have identified a first-of-its-kind, bold vision for the future of trails in Berrien County that spans over the next 10-plus years. The end goal is ultimately to be an interconnected network of trails that will enhance the county’s overall economy, health, and quality of life.
The proposed plan will help municipalities and trail organizations seek and secure resources and funding to advance the trail system for the county. With the proposed routes, an increase of about 372 miles of infrastructure will be created by connecting communities and major destinations like schools, parks, beaches, shopping centers, medical facilities, and other major employment hubs.
The trail facilities and locations addressed in the plan include shared use paths, paved shoulders/bike lanes, U.S. bike routes, “sharrows” (shared lane marking), water (paddling) trails, parks with hiking trails, mountain biking trails, cross-country skiing trails, and equestrian trails.
Community involvement is key
In the last year the FBCT leadership team, steering committee, and many community partners joined in the effort to move the plan forward.
Knowing that the success of this planning effort depends on engaging the community, the plan also included input from residents and community members through a series of public workshops, online surveys, expert focus groups, and municipal assessments.
The FBCT reports that they had almost 2,000 responses to the online survey and 100% participation from each Berrien County municipality on the municipal survey.
“By no means have we made it this far alone,” stated Dawn Marie Smith, the Director of Be Healthy Berrien. She continued, “Everyone’s involvement greatly helped us develop a proposed trail system that best addresses our communities’ needs and desires.”
Marcy Hamilton, Senior Planner and Deputy Executive Director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission said, “This is the first time we looked at all the trails throughout Berrien County and saw that there is a real opportunity to fill the gaps and create a connected regional network.” Further stating, “It’s exciting. Imagine one day being able to get on your bike in Niles and pedal all the way to Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor.”
Current projects that make up the plan
As it is, 71,235 county residents live within a five-minute walk of an existing pathway. If the full plan goes through the number jumps to 104,241. The regionally significant routes that make up the backbone of the proposed network:
Marquette Greenway is from Chicago to New Buffalo. The Michigan portion of this trail has $3.6 million in funds secured from the Michigan Department of Transportation (Transportation Alternative Program), Michigan Department of Natural Resources (Trust Fund and Recreation Passport Programs), The Pokagon Fund, New Buffalo Township, New Buffalo City and USDA Rural Development. Some local fundraising may still be needed and will be spearheaded by the Friends of Berrien County Trails.
That trail will link the 36-mile Hike & Bike Trail project and will offer bicyclists and hikers the ability to connect between New Buffalo, Three Oaks, Sawyer, Grand Beach, Harbert, Union Pier, Michiana, and points in between using safe, convenient, attractive paths and shared access ways.
Connecting to the Red Arrow Linear Hike and Bike is the Red Arrow Linear Park which had a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 28, 2021. The lane reduction of Red Arrow Highway from four to three lanes created room for a streetscape and linear path in Union Pier. Pedestrian safety is greatly improved for those visiting this bustling little town for shopping, eating, and heading to the beach. There are also 1.5 miles of trail from Lakeshore Drive to Harbert Community Park in Chikaming Township. The Friends of Berrien County Trails will support efforts to continue the linear park pathway to the south to New Buffalo and the north to Bridgman and beyond.
The Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail currently connects Michiana communities with 17 miles of off-road trail, running from the Mishawaka Riverwalk to an endpoint around Plym Park and the YMCA in Niles. Efforts are focused to extend the trail to Berrien Springs by utilizing as much of the old interurban rail line as possible. This trail could eventually reach St. Joseph and Benton Harbor on Lake Michigan.
A dog-friendly trail along McCoy Creek, called McCoy’s Creek Trail, winds its way through downtown Buchanan, Spafford Woods, and E. B. Clark Woods. In addition to hiking and biking, there are exercise stations and fishing spots. There is an ongoing effort to extend this trail out to Walton Road to River Saint Joe Brewery, and then on to the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail.
In 2022, Whirlpool constructed about six miles of mountain bike trails on their headquarters campus property along M-63 north of St. Joseph. In future years, there is a desire to construct a trail from Benton Harbor to St. Joseph, to connect to the Whirlpool headquarters campus. This trail could be along M-63 and/or Paw Paw Avenue.
Other trails include Ox Creek and Old Sauk Trail.
What impact could this have on the Tri-City Area?
Berrien County Parks is exploring the development of a new facility around the Watervliet Municipal Airport and Paw Paw River. This site could be a great opportunity to develop the first equestrian facility in Berrien County.
Additionally, recommendations for widening the shoulders to allow for shared use paths for bicycles or pedestrian traffic were suggested for: Blatchford Road, Coloma Road, Hagar Shore Road, M-140, Napier Road, Red Arrow Highway, Tamarack Road, and Territorial Road.
The Paw Paw River Water Trail is part of the existing 122 miles of water trails within the Berrien County Trails Master Plan.
What is next for FBCT
The FBCT hopes to move the project further by receiving resolutions from all 39 Berrien County municipalities. To date, funding was been received by 22 with additional funding coming from foundations and private donations.
The Friends of Berrien County Trails is a citizen-based non-profit striving to connect Berrien County with a network of trails (pedestrian, bicycle, and waterway) and encourage their use. Learn more at berrientrails.org or on their Facebook page.