Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor for The Joplin Globe. This article represents the economic impact our trails have on Ottawa and gives a glimpse into a visitor’s experience.

The sign took me by surprise.

“Louisiana Terr.”

I’d set off on a ride in and around Ottawa, Kansas, thinking it offered a glimpse of the future of cycling in the Midwest.

I hadn’t expected to blunder back in time ... to discover a sign signaling my arrival in Louisiana Territory. Boy, I thought, did I miss my turn.

Ah, but no need to worry. A quick check of Google Maps informed me that reference was to a road called Louisiana Terrace.

Whew!

Ottawa — around 13,000 people — is the largest community on what until this summer was known as the Flint Hills Nature Trail, a 117-mile rail-to-trail route that was the focus for part of my ride. It became known as Flint Hills State Park this summer.

I rode up and down the trail for a while, visiting with other cyclists and later rode over to the town’s 130-year-old depot, which is now a museum as well as the northern terminus for the Prairie Spirit Trail, a 51-mile rail-to-trail route that runs south to Iola, and is also a state park.

At Iola, the Prairie Spirit connects with the Southwind Trail to Humboldt, adding more miles yet.

Meanwhile, work is underway on the nearly 40-mile Landon Nature Trail along the former Missouri Pacific route, which will run out of Topeka and connect to Flint Hills State Park near Pomona, which is about 10 miles west of Ottawa.

And now officials in Baldwin City are planning a 14-mile rail-with-trail project to start there and run south to connect with — guess where? — yep ... Ottawa. This summer, the Baldwin City Council purchased an easement from Midland Railroad for a multi-use trail to parallel those railroad tracks.

The end result when done will be about 230 miles of interconnected riding in eastern Kansas, with Ottawa as a hub.

‘A great thing’

Flint Hills State Park actually begins in Osawatomie and continues west to Herington. About 20 of those 117 miles on the west end of the route are still being developed, but the rest is open.

This summer, Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer and Robin Jennisen, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, were in Ottawa for the bill signing that made the Flint Hills Nature Trail the newest state park, which will mean more money and attention for the trail. It is a signal that states see real value in these trails.

“What that linear trail will do for Kansas is immense,” Jennisen told The Ottawa Herald this summer, citing both the popularity of cycling and of the surrounding Flint Hills.

How immense?

Ottawa is planning a $4.3 million Legacy Square project, which will be a community venue for outdoor festivals and other events, as well as green space along the Marias des Cygnes River, to be built where the Prairie Spirit and Flint Hills trails meet. It will include new sidewalks, an event center, landscaping, art projects and more.

They hope to break ground on it early next year, John Coen, president of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, told me after my ride. He said a bed-and-breakfast is being developed in the former City Hall building downtown, which is on the Flint Hills route, and a retiree from Lenexa also plans to open a bike shop this fall that will offer sales, service, repairs and shuttles.

“We knew it would be a great thing for Kansas if the communities along the trail would embrace what we were trying to do,” Jennison told the local paper. “We have the first community that understands what is about to happen here. This is a significant day.”

Embrace the trail

“Embrace” — that’s just what I’d like to see Missouri do with the Rock Island route. Everything I saw in Ottawa says Missouri has a great opportunity at its fingertips.

Ameren, the regional utility, has agreed to donate its remaining 144 miles of the Rock Island to the state of Missouri as a park — a nice companion to the popular Katy Trail — but the state still has to accept it. We should hear more about that in the coming months.

The end result would be a 400- to 500-mile network of trails in central Missouri linking St. Louis to Kansas City and points between, including many small communities. It would be an economic engine for 20 communities along the abandoned line as well as for the state itself. It would secure’s Missouri status as a premier cycling destination, and it would make us much harder to ignore as plans go forward for the Great American, a coast-to-cost route envisioned by the Rails-toTrails Conservancy.

I can’t think of a good reason why Missouri wouldn’t accept the Rock Island, which runs on the south side of the Missouri River, and by doing so create one of the largest riding loops in the country, if not the world.

Then, planners and trail developers in Kansas and Missouri would only have to find a way of connecting the Kansas and Missouri networks to have between 700 and 800 miles of riding. A Southeast Kansas kid (or adult) could hop on the Southwind at Humboldt, ride to Ottawa, and from there go west, or go to Kansas City and St. Louis. Or all of the above.

Osawatomie, on the eastern end of Flint Hills State Park, is about 50 miles as the crow files from Pleasant Hill, Missouri, where a 47-mile spur of the Rock Island that the state has already accepted as part of its park system connects to Missouri’s Katy Trail, creating nearly 290 miles of continuous riding and serving as a southern gateway to Kansas City.

Another option to connect the networks could be Baldwin City. That’s but 40 miles from Overland Park — opening up the possibility of connecting to Missouri’s trails via the Kansas City metro area.

Getting even bigger

Riding around Ottawa and its trails, stopping for lunch downtown and filling up with gas before I left, I understand better than before that the economic impact of trails grows as these routes get connected. As they get bigger, their draw grows, their constituency grows, their economy grows. As more miles are added and more towns are linked and more services are offered, the trails go from being local or regional destinations to state and then national destinations and, ultimately, can become international destinations.

If you think it’s far-fetched that one day Europeans will be riding through the rolling grasslands and along the deep green soybean fields of Eastern Kansas, consider what happened on the Prairie Spirit Trail this summer, as reported on the Facebook page of Missouri Rock Island Trail Inc., a group that supports the state of Missouri taking over the Rock Island. Three cyclists from Europe — one from France, one from Germany and one from England, and each on a solo cycling adventure they were doing independently — just happened to meet up on the Prairie Spirit in Garnett, about 25 miles south of Ottawa.

Riding around Ottawa, this big network of Midwestern trails seems like a great thing for both states and within striking distance.

So let’s strike!