by CHRIS ROGERS
The city of Winona applied last week for $1.7 million in grant funding from the state of Minnesota to overhaul the city’s bluffside trails. If awarded, Winona would use the money to build miles of top-notch hiking and mountain biking trails, construct new trailheads and parking lots, and connect the city’s blufftop parks with one continuous trail network.
“It’ll be big if we get it,” Winona Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl said.
Also last week, the City Council approved a trail access deal with Woodlawn Cemetery for land the city needs for the proposed trail project. Under the agreement, the city will pay Woodlawn $5,000 a year for public access to trails on cemetery property and city staff will help mow the cemetery and remove diseased trees from the cemetery each year.
The grant application seeks funding for the first of two phases in a $3.3-million project dubbed the Bluff Traverse. The first phase will focus on trails and trailheads in the area of Holzinger Trails and Garvin Heights. A second phase would extend the trail network to Sugar Loaf and nearby rock-climbing spots. “We’re hopeful, based on [the grantor’s] recommendation, that if we get approved for phase one, we’ll get phase-two funding,” Ubl stated.
The first phase would overhaul Holzinger Trails, blazing a dozen new trails, including hiking-only trails, and hiking and mountain biking trails with mountain-bike-specific features for beginner, intermediate, and expert riders. A new trail would connect the iconic Garvin Heights lookout to Holzinger Trails for the first time, and the city would build new trailheads with added parking and signage at Holzinger Lodge, Garvin Heights, and Wincrest Drive.
The funding Winona is seeking would come from the Legacy Amendment’s Parks and Trails Fund, which provides millions of dollars every year for outdoor recreation facilities across Minnesota. The Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission (GMRPTC) recognized Winona’s landmark bluffs and the proposed Bluff Traverse as regionally significant earlier this year — a key step toward getting state funding. So far, the only GMRPTC-funded parks and trails in Southeast Minnesota are in Olmsted and Goodhue counties.
However, the Bluff Traverse still faces serious competition. Last year, the GMRPTC only funded half of the grant applications it received. Now, the commission will review new applications this fall and recommend projects for funding from the legislature. City staff said there is no set deadline for the GMRPTC to make its recommendations and that, last year, grant awards were announced in January.
The City Council approved a plan for the Bluff Traverse this past winter and supported last week’s grant application. The council agreed to provide $108,000 in local matching dollars to augment the Legacy grant. That money would come from the H.C. Garvin Winona Civic Fund, a fund established by H.C. Garvin for the maintenance of Garvin Heights and Windom Park. In addition to that grant match, the City Council approved in March spending $600,000 on survey work, land acquisitions, initial trail development, and other work to “kickstart” the Bluff Traverse project.
City signs $125K+ deal with Woodlawn
Part of the existing Holzinger Trails network is on city-owned parkland and part of it crosses Woodlawn Cemetery land. For years, the cemetery association has allowed the public to use those trails, but to be eligible for state funding, Winona officials had to either buy the land or get an easement, formalizing the public’s right to use trails on cemetery land.
After weeks of negotiation, city staff and Woodlawn Cemetery representatives reached a deal that was approved by the City Council last week.
Woodlawn granted the city a 25-year easement. That means the cemetery nonprofit still owns the land, but the public has a legal right to use the trails. In exchange, the City Council agreed to pay Woodlawn $5,000 a year for the next 25 years. Under the deal, the annual fee will automatically increase with inflation as measured by the federal Consumer Price Index. On top of the annual fee, the city agreed to mow parts of the cemetery up to three times per year and to remove up to five diseased trees per year from the cemetery at no charge.
City Council member Al Thurley initially questioned the proposed annual fee, but ultimately voted with the rest of the council to approve it.
The fee will come out of the park and recreation maintenance budget, meaning that property taxes will likely fund it.
Earlier this year, Woodlawn Cemetery logged a portion of its land on which public trails sit. While city staff expressed some concern about logging affecting trail users’ experience, under the deal, Woodlawn will retain the right to log its land every 10 years. Any future tree-harvesting projects would also require a city permit.
Asked how he felt the deal with Woodlawn turned out, Ubl said, “It’s a vital piece and a vital agreement for the Bluff Traverse.” Woodlawn’s land is in the middle of the planned Bluff Traverse trails, and it provides one of the only options for routing a trail to connect Garvin Heights and Holzinger Trails. Without a long-term easement for the land, the city would not be able to win state grant funding to build trails on the cemetery land. “I think it’s a win for both parties because the public uses those trails on a regular basis,” Ubl stated.
Woodlawn Cemetery Superintendent Tim Leahy was not available for comment.
City staff are still trying to strike deals with other landowners to buy bluffside properties or purchase easements for the trail system.