ST. ALBANS — Those who take advantage of the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail may be thrilled to see the trail unveiled again as snow melts.
What even they might not know, however, is that the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail Council are launching a $100,000-plus effort to improve the trail, better market the trail and connect the trail to businesses in the communities the trail runs through.
The initiative’s planning stage is underway, led by the SE Group, the consulting firm soon to finish Enosburg Falls’ Vital Village project, a plan to similarly revitalize the village’s downtown.
SE Group representatives met with the MVRTC on March 18 to explain their approach to the project.
Drew Pollak-Bruce, an SE Group planner, said the group’s goal in planning the project is to “maximize the economic and tourism impact of the trail” through five means: branding, wayfinding, marketing and a “trail-friendly business” program, offering technical assistance and wayfinding to businesses situated near the trail.
Pollak-Bruce told the council he will serve as both the input-gatherer and communicator for the SE Group.
Liz Grades is also working on the project, an SE Group designer with a fine arts background.
So is Russ Roca, of website the Path Less Pedaled — pathlesspedaled.com — “inspiring bicycle travel through storytelling.”
Pollak-Bruce said the team will use Roca’s strong sense of “what bicyclists are looking for,” a sense Pollak-Bruce supported by noting Roca’s nearly 40,000 YouTube followers.
According to Pollak-Bruce, Roca has already offered preliminary suggestions like geocaching to attract students to the trail — for example, placing a unique emblem in each community through which the trail passes, which students could collect via rubbings.
MVRTC members shared their rail trail improvement wish list. Clearer signage. Restrooms. A stronger online presence. Attracting younger people to the trail made several council members’ wish list.
Others said they would like to publicly clarify exactly how far the trail extends, with one mentioning a reportedly common misconception that the trail extends into Canada. In fact, it covers just over 26 miles from St. Albans to Richford.
After noting the council’s comments, Pollak-Bruce walked the council through the six stages of the SE Group’s process.
First, “a thorough and objective assessment of MVRT’s potential to become a trail destination within the competitive marketplace,” based on trail traffic data, community and visitor demographics, trail amenities and “visitation potential,” the scale of “locals, destination visitors to the trail and regional visitors who may be looking for an additional activity to do during their stay in northern Vermont.”
Second, a three-day trail ride and audit. The SE Group and the Path Less Pedaled will ride the trail for two days to gauge existing wayfinding and general trail conditions, and the ease of finding businesses, services and amenities.
During that ride, Roca plans to capture a video tour of the trail for his YouTube channel — remember the 38,000 followers — “to highlight the user experience and bring attention to the trail.”
On the third day, the SE Group plans to follow up with local business owners along the trail corridor and gather additional photos and videos for marketing.
The third step is the actual concept development — the SE Group designing the trail’s new visual brand, wayfinding system and marketing strategy.
Fourth is hosting a brand and trail business summit for residents, municipal representatives, chambers of commerce and local businesses, at which SE Group representatives will present analyses and preliminary concepts, then gather community input.
Creating a funding and implementation action plan, followed by a branding and identity guide, are respectively fifth and sixth on the SE Group’s list.
Pollak-Bruce said the project’s planning stage will continue through September, with implementation of the final plans scheduled for October through March 2020.
The initiative’s total cost is approximately $118,374.
The Northern Border Regional Commission awarded the NRPC and MVRTC federal grant funding covering 50 percent of that total cost. Local organizations were responsible for the remaining 50 percent, most of which came from the NRPC’s transportation planning initiative funds.
The MVRTC next meets in May. For more information, contact the NRPC at 524-5958.