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New committee formed to look at trail development
in Gays Mills
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A new committee has formed to develop a recommendation for the use of possible trail development funds in Gays Mills.

It was a much smaller group in attendance at the Saturday, Feb. 21 meeting to discuss development proposals for the wetlands on the north end of Gays Mills. And by the end of the meeting, the scale of the proposals appeared to be much smaller and more focused on improving existing trails and working to extend them on village-owned lands in the immediate future.

There is somewhere between $3,500 and $5,000 available for education trail development, according to Julia Henley, who organized the meeting. Those funds are derived from a $50,000 matching grant awarded to the village, which expires in June. Time spent in meetings and time donated for work can be used as a match for the village’s contribution. Each hour of time spent by volunteers was worth around $8 toward the village’s obligations.

The amount that could be received through the grant to forward trail work can be increased either through additional volunteer effort or donations of money or materials. And in response to an inquiry from Gays Mills Village Trustee Geraldine Smith, Henley assured attendees that the village could move forward with any plan they approve without taking on additional debt.

Looking at the extent of land owned by the village now vacated from buyout and demolition as part of the flood recovery effort, Community Conservation Director Rob Horwich suggested the emptied ‘old town district’ was a “canvas waiting to happen for a large scale art installation.”

“And if that’s not going to happen, then turn it back into prairie and woods,” Horwich said.

Installation of a trail in a floodway would take serious planning and fundraising and would need to be done in multiple phases, according to Tom Lukens, who serves as the board chairperson with Valley Stewardship Network and claimed broad experience with trail building.

“You could easily spend $10,000 for a study to make recommendations on how to engineer a trail,” Lukens said.

Lukens suggested an alternative to attempting boardwalks into the wetland that he thought would meet the educational trail requirement of the grant – building a viewing platform and installing sight and sound equipment so people using the platform could see and hear bird and frog activity without walking out into the wetland.

One of the ideas mentioned by Henley, Horwich, village trustee Ed Block, and village resident Mark Drake was the installation of numbered signs along the existing trail and any new trail development explaining the various features of the wetlands that border the village – plants, birds, amphibians, etc.

Drake also suggested speaking to the Mississippi Valley Conservancy about the possibility of resuming mowed trails in the Kickapoo Bottoms natural area on the south end of town. He also suggested improving access to encourage use of the trails both at the Kickapoo Bottoms and on the trail access point next to the Crawford County Highway Department garage.

“Dennis Pelock was amenable to this (highway department access) a few years ago, when I spoke to him about it,” Drake said. He thought it was reasonable to believe that if re-approached, Pelock would still have a favorable outlook on such a project.

In response to a suggestion of fundraising to create a wetland museum and larger trail, village resident Rachel Jovi suggested making use of “underutilized space” in the Gays Mills Mercantile Center. Noting the meetings roots in economic development, Jovi said that developing an area as a recreational destination also increases the likelihood of attracting new business willing to establish themselves in the area.

Jess Johnson asked that plans be constrained to property already owned by the village. Johnson also noted that the village already has trail access, camping and parking at Robb Park near the dam.

“You would need to get an adjustment to the grant,” Henley said.

That request would need to be made soon, explaining to the DNR what the scope of the project was and how it would be accomplished.

However, the new committee will have to move forward without Henley’s participation beyond her help placing a change request with the DNR if needed. Henley, who recently resigned from her position with the Gays Mills Economic Development Association (GMEDA), stated that she felt she had been unfairly drawn into a position of being attacked and vilified for her efforts as a volunteer and would not be involved with further planning.

Henley made references to feeling attacked for her role in the development discussions repeatedly throughout the meeting. At one point, midway through the meeting, it prompted a verbal altercation between Henley’s partner Jack Knowles and trustee John Johnson after Johnson responded by asking Henley “how many millions were thrown away by you?” during her tenure as the flood recovery coordinator in Gays Mills.

Henley stated during her tenure working for the village she implemented decisions made by the village board prior to her being hired.

Knowles, apparently angered by Johnson’s questions, loudly chastised the trustee for overlooking Henley’s “effort to create a vibrant, sustainable, village” in the aftermath of catastrophic flooding.

It was the sole moment of contention in the meeting. Henley was thanked by attendee Joann Gonos at the end of the two-hour meeting for her organizational effort, which had brought the current group together helped them understand the timeline for action and the funding possibilities.

Henley committed to determine the actual dollar amount of funding available and reaffirmed her willingness to put in an adjustment request for the grant.

Rachel Jovi agreed to organize the next meeting for volunteers to create a plan and formal request to the village board and DNR.