Timeline for Blazing Star Trail unveiled

Published 10:28 am Thursday, February 19, 2009

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources representatives unveiled Wednesday a tentative timeline for the extension of the Blazing Star Trail from Myre-Big Island State Park to Hayward.

If all goes according to plan, a design for the trail extension will be completed by fall, and construction will start late spring or early summer in 2010, said Kent Skaar, DNR acquisition and development sector leader. It would be the second of four phases of trail construction to eventually connect Albert Lea to Austin.

In front of about 55 area residents at the Hayward City Hall, Skaar and associate Joel Wagar explained the history of the project and what has to take place for it to come to fruition.

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In 2003, funds were awarded to allow the trail to be constructed from Albert Lea to Myre-Big Island State Park, Wagar said.

Then in 2005, a second chunk of money came in a state bonding bill for the project, which allocated about $1.5 million for the construction of the trail from the state park to Hayward, he said.

This money, which remains intact, must be spent or tied to contracts by Dec. 31, 2010, or it will be returned to the state.

People in the audience expressed concerns about making sure that deadline was met.

Wagar and Skaar on more than one occasion said they are set to meet the deadlines of the funding, and there’s no excuses for further delays .

Wagar said in 2006 the DNR first contacted affected landowners and asked them where they thought the trail should go and if they’d be interested in selling their property, he said. That process continued into 2007.

He said there’s been “a number of issues” at the DNR since then that have kept the project from moving forward.

“But I think the good news is, the dollars are still there,” Wagar said. And the last time DNR staff contacted the landowners, they were still interested in an offer.

Skaar said within the next three weeks an independent appraiser will be hired, after which it will take a month to six weeks to appraise the properties.

After the appraisals, a separate appraiser reviews the findings. At that point, Skaar said, he’d anticipate another six to eight weeks to get the documentation ready about the appraisals, and the DNR’s Land and Minerals Division staff could start contacting landowners with an offer in hand.

By early summer of this year, there should be a good idea of what’s going to happen, he said, including more on if the needed property can be acquired. Then the state will move toward closing on the properties.

Once there’s an assurance that the state can purchase the properties, the design work will begin.

Skaar reminded people that the bond funds are available for use until Dec. 31, 2010.

“At this point, if all sits as we hope it will, we will have a design pretty well along by this fall, with the anticipation of construction starting the late spring or early summer of 2010,” he said. “Right now the question is really going to be what the design looks like and what it costs.”

The bridge crossing of Albert Lea Lake will be the most expensive component of the project, costing around two-thirds of the available funds, he estimated.

People in the audience asked whether the DNR representatives thought the secured bonding funding would be adequate to complete the segment of the trail and the bridge. And if not, what would happen then?

Skaar said admittedly the project would be “right on the cusp” of the funds. If the state is short on funding, the DNR will look at where to stop the trail and then come back to the Blazing Star Trail Joint Powers Board to find out its preference. The Joint Powers Board comprises Albert Lea, Hayward, Austin and Freeborn County officials. Additional funding from the state can also try to be obtained.

He said the bridge over Albert Lea Lake would need to be about 1,000 feet long, and its cost would be determined by several different factors.

In related news, during the Blazing Star Trail Joint Powers Board meeting before the DNR informational meeting, the board members voted to have Albert Lea City Councilor Al “Minnow” Brooks appointed as chairman and Austin City Councilor Jeff Austin as vice chairman.

Austin Community Development Director Craig Hoium discussed the financial report of the Joint Powers Board, stating there is about $10,500 in the bank, up about $500 in interest from the $10,000 donated by the cities of Albert Lea and Austin.

Hoium pointed out some of the accomplishments that have taken place within the last few years regarding trail development.

He said in 2001, the Joint Powers Board was established to further assist the DNR and to make requests for funding.

Jerry Hickman, with the Freeborn County Trail Association, said he was excited to hear what the DNR representatives would say and he looked forward to getting a timetable for the project.

Albert Lea-Freeborn County Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Susie Petersen read a statement on behalf of the April Sorensen Memorial Committee, which stated the committee is enthused to hear about the continuation of the Blazing Star Trail to Hayward and eventually to Austin.

Petersen said the committee wants to give funds they’ve raised back to the community to promote a healthy lifestyle.

They would like to donate benches and other necessary equipment alongside the trail, along with a large pavilion with landscaping.