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Each year, 1.5 million people visit Polk County's bike trails, rivers, lakes and parks. That's a lot of bike rides, canoe trips and picnics, and that amount of use comes at a price.

On Tuesday November 6th, Polk County voters will be able to choose if they want the county to spend $50 million for 20 years of improvements on trails, parks, rivers and lakes.

Up for vote is a $50 million referendum, called the Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond. If approved, the Polk County Conservation Board said $50 million would be borrowed, and the average household (those living in homes with an assessed value of $100,000) would pay about $9 more in property taxes each year. The referendum needs more than 60 percent approval to pass, and money would go toward projects such as making Polk County watersheds better for flood prevention, improving water quality and connecting existing Polk County trails through new links.

For Des Moines active bike community, that last one is big.

If the initiative is approved, conservation officials say $4 million would be spent on new connections and improvements to three trails. The Gay Lea Wilson Trail in Pleasant Hill would be extend about 35 miles throughout the eastern and northern parts of Polk County, including Ankeny, when complete. Other projects include work on the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a 20-mile trail from Baxter to Bondurant, and the Easter Lake Trail around Easter Lake.

Businesses sprout up along bike trails

In 2010, a U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey and the Iowa Department of Transportation estimated that there were more than 26,000 bicycle commuters in Polk and 36 surrounding counties. (The population for this area was about 1.7 million). They also found that commuters provided $41.95 million in direct sales, and supported 975 jobs in the region.

Carl Voss, Des Moines Bike Collective chairman and one of three co-founders of the nonprofit group, said many factors have contributed to the area's fast-growing biking community. A booming trail system, new bike lanes and bike racks all make for easier commutes and social rides, he said.

"People ride their bikes for many different reasons - to be green, for exercise, to save money," Voss said. "In the past 10 years, things have been really amped up to expand beyond just great trails. Trails don't necessarily lead you to the hardware store or the grocery store. It's important that we have access to business, too."

The trails have led plenty of people to the bars and restaurants that bump up next to trails, though.

Since the High Trestle Trail bridge opened during the summer of 2011, Madrid, a town of about 3,000 located 35 miles northwest of Des Moines in Boone County, has seen several new businesses sprout up, including two restaurants in its downtown area and two bars near the trail, one called the Flat Tire Lounge.

"Biking was a rapidly-growing activity and our location was tough to beat," said Scott Olsen, co-owner of the Flat Tire Lounge. "There were already quite a few people taking advantage of the (High Trestle Trail), although the bridge hadn't opened yet and no other businesses had sprung up yet."

"Without the trail system, we probably never would have opened."

Mark Artensen, city administrator for the city of Bondurant, said he hopes the completion of trail heads can do the same for his town.

"It would be a fantastic addition," he said. "I get questioned every month by someone asking about the bike trails. Right now, we're using city funds for trail heads. This initiative would help with that. Downtown businesses want it done as quickly as possible."

Artensen believes the trail connectors would bring business to Bondurant, and work as a bridge between his city and surrounding towns.

"It is a most anticipated project," Artensen said. "We are looking forward to it impacting our city."

According to the Iowa National Heritage Foundation, more than 500 people rode the High Trestle Trail past the Flat Tire Lounge each day last summer. This year, even more cruised by the bar each day. Olsen said since the trail opened through Madrid, he's watched the town become more involved in the biking community, including himself.

"The economic impact is hard to weigh, but the economics of natural resources and green space is substantial," Mark Ackelson, president of the Iowa National Heritage Foundation, said. "The current economic contributions of parks, lakes and other recreational areas show that people in Polk County are spending $40 million in recreation each year."

Ackelson said residents from Polk County spend another $50 million in secondary spending (on things like bikes and gear, etc.), and that a $23 million bond from the Water and Land Legacy Bond would go toward construction.

"That is why it is so important to make investments in our green space and our recreational infrastructure," he said. "The money we raise in Polk County will stay in Polk County, and it is so important to our growth as a better place to live and enjoy ourselves."

Current Polk County parks budget can't cover all project

"Recreation and conservation certainly benefits the city," Todd Redenius, director of parks and recreation in Ankeny, said. "It benefits by adding additional park spaces, improving water quality and by adding to the regional trail system."

Dennis Parker, director of the Polk County Conservation Board, said that group's current capital budget - which is used to make repairs and improvements to Polk County's 18 parks, plus wildlife areas and recreational trails - is between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.

It's not nearly enough to complete the projects needed, he said.
"The number of projects they really need to complete is not possible with the budget limitations they have," said Tom Hockensmith, Polk County's District 3 supervisor. "Right now they have to fight for federal and DNR grants."

Hockensmith represents Alleman, Altoona, Bondurant, Elkhart, Mitchellville, Pleasant Hill, Polk City, Runnells and the northeast section of Des Moines.

"Biking has become very popular, and we laud ourselves as the trail capital of the nation," Parker said. "Through our trail system, we are able to connect communities, which benefit both Des Moines and its surrounding towns."

"Our goal is to complete them, so we can maintain that connectivity and everyone can thrive."

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