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Improving large-scale trail development partnerships

By Dick Westfall, Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources

1. Build a relationship first

It's hard to form any type of partnership if you do not know each other. Start working with potential partners on trails planning, partners' trail projects, your trail projects or joint trail projects. A relationship is the first step towards trust, which is essential for a successful partnership.

2. Make compromises

A successful large-scale trail development partnership project requires true compromise, not just lip service. One good example is the Grand Illinois Trail (GIT). Early on, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) understood that the GIT would not be a typical state trail. It required IDNR to relax some of its standards (design, signage, management, etc.).

"Partnerships" that consist of an agency or organization soliciting "partners" for the sole purpose of helping them complete their project do not work well. All partners must feel that the project, at least to some extent, meets their goals and objectives. The first step is to develop a shared vision.

3. Provide some structure

Large-scale trail development partnership projects work better with some type of organizational structure. For the GIT, IDNR formed the GIT Executive Council with representatives of three geographic regions&endash; northeastern Illinois, northwestern Illinois and "canal country"&endash; as well as key organizations such as the League of Illinois Bicyclists and key agencies such as the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The Council meets every two to three months to review progress, identify and resolve issues, pursue new initiatives, identify follow-up activities, etc. Each meeting has an agenda and minutes are taken. Meeting regularly and putting everything in writing helps to ensure progress and coordination.

4. Make it a priority

Of course the easiest way to complete a big trail project is to secure all the necessary funding up front. However, this is seldom possible. However, if the project becomes a priority, then available funding can be directed towards it.

The GIT is a priority for several funding sources in Illinois, including IDNR's Bike Path Program, the Illinois Department of Transportation's Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program and IDNR's Recreational Trails Program. All state and locally-sponsored projects that are segments of the GIT receive preference under these programs. Since 1995, about $40 million has been directed to GIT-related projects.

5. Dedicate staff to the project

Trying to do a large-scale trail development partnership project on top of existing work or "during coffee breaks" does not work well. Ideally, at least one of the partners should dedicate at least one staff person to the project. IDNR has a full-time GIT Coordinator- George Bellovics, in northern Illinois.

6. Set ambitious deadlines, but be flexible, and most of all, be patient

By definition, a large-scale trail development partnership project takes time to complete. Deadlines (interim and final) help maintain momentum. At the 1995 GIT Forum, June 3, 2000 was established as the target date to open the trail for hiking and biking (it was understood some segments would be suitable only for mountain biking). At this time, the trail is not fully completed, but it is open. The five-year deadline significantly helped in maintaining momentum.

Setting deadlines is important, but they may need to be adjusted as new circumstances, opportunities or challenges surface. The 1997 Boub v. Wayne Illinois Supreme Court decision was an unforseen obstacle that will clearly delay opening some on-road segments of the GIT. However, the momentum of and interest in the GIT has alerted the Governor and Illinois General Assembly of the need to resolve this issue.

Finally, it is essential to be patient. Most long-distance trails take years or decades to complete. Most remain a "work-in-progress" with on-going refinements and improvements. Without this long view, it is easy to get discouraged and lose momentum.

7. Make it personal

Agencies and organizations are made up of people. While a large-scale trail development partnership project may be a job to some, to others it is personal. Appreciate the personal investment partners make in a project. It is easy to turn them off and lose their enthusiasm and trust.

Do not take all the credit&endash; give it to your partners. Usually, they, in turn, will give you credit.

Be inclusive rather than exclusive. Accomplishing objectives through a committee is always more challenging, but, in the end, always more successful.

For more information: Dick Westfall, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, 524 S. 2nd St., Springfield, IL 62701-1787; Phone (217) 782-3715; e-mail:

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