Submitted By Keith Nelson
St. Louis County Commissioner
I understand a newly-formed opposition group has convinced the city council to research breaching a long-standing contract with the DNR on the proposed OHV park in Houston.
After more than a decade of good-faith planning, accepting more than half-a-million in state and federal grant money, and risking the credibility of the city as reliable future partners, my sincere advice to the citizens and city leaders is this:
Think very carefully before getting behind any 11th-hour effort to pull the plug on this project.
As a long-time rural local elected official, former convenience store owner near the Gilbert OHV park, and statewide rural park and trail advocate, I know how important a grocery store, hardware store, restaurant, bank and library are to keeping a community vibrant.
Small towns in deep-rural areas of the state face a universal challenge: Adapt to attract new life and new energies, or do nothing and accept the inevitable slow, dreary decent toward irrelevance as a livable community.
Your previous community leaders should be commended for recognizing Houston was unlikely to attract a new job-bearing manufacturing plant to support Main Street businesses, and the county or state was not coming forward with new hospital or veteran’s home. So they looked at the advantages of creating a multiple-use outdoor recreation model after researching the good things happening at the OHV parks in Appleton and Gilbert - where virtually none of the theoretical concerns raised by opposition groups in those areas during the public input phase ever materialized.
Simultaneously, a local landowner was already busy bulldozing a ragged system of OHV trails in the bluffs that was completely outside the public process, any formal environmental review, and definitely not controlled. To their credit, those previous city leaders agreed to work with local OHV clubs and the DNR on a sustainable and systematic publicly controlled plan for the project.
People question why the DNR would get behind a motorized project like Gilbert, Appleton, or Houston. The hard truth is traditional users - hikers, bikers, canoeists, bird watchers, and even hunters, are becoming an endangered species. They are aging-out quickly with no new generational interest following behind. That’s why the DNR was forced to target younger, more diverse, and non-traditional user groups like women, minorities and yes, OHV enthusiasts. OHV is a perfect link to upwardly-mobile, family-oriented outdoor enthusiasts who are good neighbors and good partners - and they spend where they recreate.
My experience is hikers, bikers and canoeist pull into the store with coolers loaded with supplies they bought in the cities, gas-up, fill their water bottles in the restroom and leave. The OHV’ers make it a point to buy local and develop meaningful, long-term local relationships.
You’re likely not hearing much from your local businesses on this. My bet is a few people are making things pretty testy in town. But it’s no secret local retailers are hurting after a year like we’ve just come through when conditions were already tough for businesses in small towns. There is no question they need this new revenue, and you need them if you are going to keep Main Street strong.
On the issue of people making things testy in town, it’s natural someone would want to protect their own organizational interests. But the OHV park in Gilbert and Appleton didn’t detract from the hikers, bikers and water sports in the area, as some said it would. Not even close. The parks added another dimension and another important reason to recreate in our areas.
So don’t let anybody tell you the OHV park is a mutually exclusive proposition for your town. The OHV park does not need to die so your town can live. Quite the contrary. Your town and your core retail businesses likely need the park more than any customer-conscious retailer is willing to say. So you should say if for them.
Support your local businesses and make your city stronger by supporting the park. Nobody needs to risk retribution by standing up in a public meeting to speak in favor of the park. Just make it a point to let your mayor and city council know you support the park - and urge them to do the same.
Keith Nelson is a founding member of the Greater MN Regional Parks and Trails Commission (District One).