April 23, 2014

Coon Rapids

The vision of the late Steve Garst, a passionate conservationist and influential agri-businessman, took a giant step forward Tuesday at Whiterock Conservancy in the Coon Rapids area.

The plan now is for thousands to follow with steps of their own, ones taken in recreation and reflection on a planned 40 miles of trails at Whiterock, a non-profit land trust formed through a donation by the Garst Family.

"This is a destination adventure," said Ken Herring, the board president of the Whiterock Conservancy. "It is unlike other trails that are around the state."

Herring joined other Whiterock officials and economic-development leaders for a ground-breaking of the trails system Tuesday afternoon.

Elizabeth Garst, who along with her sister, Rachel, have been forces behind the project, said her father serves as a continuing inspiration.

"He long dreamed of having trails in Whiterock, and I think of him today," said Elizabeth Garst, project manager and board treasurer for Whiterock. "This is just a thrilling moment."

The $4.8 million, 40-mile trails system will include 40 miles of trails open to hiking, running and walking, 16 miles of trails for mountain biking, 7 miles for horses and 12 miles of double-tracked trails available for use by all users, including the mobility challenged.

As it stands, Whiterock pulls about 5,000 visitors annually, but the figure is estimated to jump to 25,000 or more, fed largely through the regional draw of the mountain-biking system.

Conrad Kramer, executive director of Whiterock Conservancy, said the mountain-biking promises to be the best in a wide swath of the Midwest. He expects it to boost tourism for Coon Rapids and surrounding communities.

"Well, we're pretty psyched," he said.

The project will include five RV campsites in the new Horse Campground to be located by Oakridge Farmhouse; four backcountry hike-in/bike-in campsites and two wildlife viewing stands/blinds.

The backcountry trail will be heavy on education. Experts in geology and archaeology and river hydrology were consulted to map out the trails route so users get the best experiences, Elizabeth Garst said.

"It really is a one-of-a-kind thing we're doing and will get noticed," said James Host, a landscape architect with Confluence, a Des Moines firm involved in the project.

Chad Schreck, executive director of the Midwest Partnership, an economic-development organization that includes Greene, Guthrie, Adair and Audubon counties, said the trails system, coupled with other existing and developing amenities at Whiterock, will serve as a key element for regional growth.

"We have a lot of support from our four counties," Schreck said.

Recreation projects are vital in attracting new residents to rural Iowa, Schreck said.

"We need more of these high-quality-of-life things," he said.

Schreck added, "Just having a good job isn't enough for many people."

Justin Roetman, president of the Coon Rapids Economic Development Group, sees a specific lift for Coon Rapids.

"Think what it's going to do for our small community of 1,200 or 1,300 people," Roetman said.

Roetman said he's particularly enthused about the mountain-biking system.

"I'm not even a biker, and I might go buy a mountain bike tomorrow," Roetman said.

The mountain-biking trails will have sections for beginners and a skilled loop with jumps and crossings.

Gary Haverman, the mayor of Bayard, said Whiterock is a place for people to build memories.

"Let the memories begin," Haverman said.

The grand opening of the backcountry trails system is expected in early September with the substantial completion date in October or November.