Trail Plans Come Together as Municipalities Unify

Open houses draw 170 people, enthusiasm and ideas

Municipal leaders from Egg Harbor to Sister Bay learned on Dec. 13 just how much more support they could get by working together, rather than separately, on a multiuse trail that would link northern Door County communities.

That morning and evening, volunteers for Egg Harbor Trails Initiative and village officials organized two open house and presentation events at Kress Pavilion that attracted 170 people.

The open houses gathered together a trail planner for Peninsula State Park, and officials who already have trails in the planning stage – the Village of Sister Bay and the towns of Gibraltar and Liberty Grove.

The sessions attracted cyclists, hikers, interested residents, Wisconsin Bike Fed trail proponents, tourism leaders, legislators, a state transportation official and two National Park Service community project assistants – plus one enthusiastic hospital leader who thinks Door County could become the healthiest in Wisconsin.

“This is so exciting to see so many people come out for a project like this,” said Brian Stephens, Door County Medical Center CEO. 

The medical center this fall became a supporting partner of the four-trail Egg Harbor Trails Initiative, as well as a Sister Bay trail. But he likes the idea of trails linking Sturgeon Bay to the northern tip of the Door peninsula.

He said he watches national health rankings and was encouraged recently to see Door County ranked the ninth healthiest county in Wisconsin.

“That’s pretty good, but it’s not something we’re ready to put on a billboard yet,” he said. “The world’s longest-lived peoples don’t pump iron, don’t run marathons or join gyms. Instead, they live in environments that constantly nudge them into moving without thinking about it. This kind of trails project is just the kind of project that gives you that little nudge to walk to town or bike to town.”

Door County Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Brian Stephens told 100 people at an open house that trails connecting communities could help make the county the healthiest in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Greg De Tennis.

The wider, community-linking idea attracted attention of regional media outlets, as well as federal legislative staff members and state Sen. André Jacque (R-De Pere) and state Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay). Both said they support the local communities as they begin to build the first small pieces of trail, but they can imagine ways a Sturgeon Bay-to-Northport trail could become a reality.

“I probably won’t live long enough to see all of that,” Kitchens said, but said he will try to build a coalition with legislators statewide who want safe trails for constituents and visitors.

Kitchens envisioned a fund for such projects as it would be easier to create that than to gain approval every year or so when a piece of a project needed state matching funds for federal grants.

Jacque served on a state tourism council when it set up the Office of Recreation, and he wrote grants for the City of Green Bay when it created the Sgt. Ben Edinger Corridor – a multiuse trail through the west side of Green Bay. He foresees some expensive or difficult property acquisitions for some sections of the Door County trails, unlike the Green Bay trail that utilized a railbed.

“But certainly there’s widespread support and I’ve been happy to be a strong advocate for infrastructure as a member of both the state building commission and state transportation projects initiative,” Jacque said. “As a grant writer, I started thinking of funding streams, but the first step is all of you being here today. Hopefully, we can cross all the rows that we need to to make this project a success.”

How the Trail Vision Blossomed

The Village of Egg Harbor started discussing a beach-to-beach trail from the village beach to Frank E. Murphy Park in 2019, but soon other projects and pandemic-era priorities took over, said Megan Sawyer, village administrator. 

This year, Egg Harbor volunteers Susan Stauber and Greg De Tennis and Village President John Heller dove into the local trail effort, envisioning not only the beach-to-beach trail, but also a trail leading from the Gibraltar town line to downtown Egg Harbor; a trail on Hillside Road past the Landmark Resort onto Sunnypoint Road; and one avoiding the busy state Highway 42 hill and heading south from downtown to Rainbow Court businesses and condominiums. 

Egg Harbor property owner Steve Mongin talks with Mike Duke from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and looks at a planned multiuse trail connecting Ephraim and Fish Creek. Photo courtesy of Greg De Tennis.

Trails were in the planning or development stages in Sister Bay, the Town of Gibraltar and Peninsula State Park when the Egg Harbor group realized the communities could combine efforts.

“We needed to all talk and needed to bring our plans together and ultimately, found out we’re all working for the same things: connectivity between communities,” said Travis Thyssen, Gibraltar Town Administrator.

Thyssen applied for and received a $120,000 Transportation Alternatives Program grant for the planning costs of Gibraltar’s portion of a trail system linking Sister Bay, Ephraim, Fish Creek (Gibraltar) and Egg Harbor.

Gibraltar already had some small trails such as the Fish Creek Park trail that simply led into that park. Thyssen saw a chance for a trail linking the Fish Creek Park to a Gibraltar route through the business district, and then a safe trail detouring the Hwy 42 hill and continuing south past the Settlement shops to Little Sweden.

The town has $900,000 collected and is working to purchase 195 acres of the Marise Redmann properties near both the Settlement shops and up the bluff from Fish Creek Park near the town sewer plant.

Thyssen already has a design to put trails on top of the route of a needed sewer trunk line, and Peninsula State Park has a trail route designed from Ephraim through parkland toward the southernmost state park entrance and a bicycle-rental business at Fish Creek. 

Sister Bay Village Administrator Julie Schmelzer said the village had been working on a trail along Hwy 42 to Ephraim, as well as a trail from new apartments and senior-living areas along state Highway 57, when she and Thyssen began meeting. 

“This past year we started meeting about how we can connect with Ephraim and Fish Creek and eventually, all the way from Northport to Sturgeon Bay,” Schmelzer said.

Schmelzer hired Stantec engineers to design the trail along Hwy 42, but the Hwy 57 trail has become an urgent matter. Schmelzer said if the village can’t gain full funding for that trail, it would consider a gravel or stone surface to open the trail for safety reasons.

“On Hwy 57 we have a lot of J-1 workers, a lot of elderly people and income-constrained people who walk on that route,” Schmelzer said, noting Sister Bay already has a gift from Door County Medical Center to get started.

The village also bought 56 acres several blocks uphill from the downtown to allow for workforce housing, and Schmelzer is working on a Woodland Trail through a wetland from the housing to the business district.

National Park Service Works for Egg Harbor at No Cost

During the process, the Egg Harbor project leaders learned about the National Park Service’s Trails and Conservation Assistance Program and successfully applied for a valuable, but non-monetary grant. For months they have received free assistance from the National Park Service through landscape architect Patrick Lydon and community planner Chris Morgan for everything from surveying and visioning to finding environmentally sensitive locations and the best locations for on-road bike lanes or dedicated off-road pathways.

The Park Service experts came to the county specifically to help Egg Harbor. At the information session, Morgan set up a chart of trail types to collect data and ideas for what residents, walkers and cyclists preferred for trail styles, and whether they would tolerate on-road options or only dedicated off-road trails. He encouraged residents to place round stickers on the types of route or trail that fit their comfort level in locations such as the five-way intersection at Hillside and South Trail roads, the village beach and County Road G.

But they also provided guidance and helped gather data, comments and opinions the other communities can use. 

National Park Service Community Planner Chris Morgan collects responses on Egg Harbor trail preferences during one of two open houses Dec. 13. The majority preferred off-road options, but that won’t be possible in certain locations and geographical pinch points. Photo by Craig Sterrett.

“Today is about you and your thoughts on the trail,” Lydon said. “We really are here today to try to capture that feedback and how you would use the trails. We want to move this project on so it will be inclusive to everyone in the community.”

They furthered their efforts for Egg Harbor during the Dec. 13 event, asking everyone to post comments, ideas, possible trail routes and even trail names on sticky notes on several large maps and charts they placed on tables.

“Attendees sent a pretty clear message that the preferred trail options, when possible, would be those that are off-road,” Stauber said. “Based on our unique challenges here in Door County, that may not always be possible, but the message is clear that we should aim to achieve whatever we can that is closest to that ideal.”

Connectivity and Community

Julie Gilbert from Destination Door County listed more than one dozen ways a trail system would benefit the environment, businesses, residents, visitors and property owners economically, socially and for health.

“I can feel the passion and the excitement and the enthusiasm,” she told the 100 people in the room for a morning session. 

The NPS’s Lydon said he particularly liked Gilbert’s concluding term about trails: “If we’re connected, we’re connected.”

Kirsten Finn from Wisconsin Bike Fed said in the past, the federation did much of its work for urban trails. Recently, transportation officials told Finn they didn’t know if she could find $10 million worth of proposals for projects in small communities.

“We came in with $51 million,” Finn said, noting that Egg Harbor and volunteer leader Stauber have done a great job with their proposals.

“We have been involved with other systems that are similar such as the Heart of Vilas system that connects all of the communities in Vilas County and which has become a real destination year round,” Finn said.

She said trails help people access shopping districts or duck in for a beer or ice cream without dealing with motor-vehicle traffic. 

“When you’re in a car you might blow past,” she said. “In addition to all the health and safety benefits, there are some real economic benefits there.”