GREENFIELD — It’s taken three years, but advocates for a connection between the Greenfield and Cumberland sections of the Pennsy Trail finally feel like they’re making some progress.
The project is gaining more interest around the county; the group has started a petition of support, and the Hancock County Tourism Commission recently committed $30,000 over three years to the project.
“That’s big progress,” said Larry Lindley, New Palestine resident and president of the Sugar Creek Pennsy Trail Committee.
Lindley said progress has been slow, but more and more community members have been showing interest.
But as the proposal gathers steam, so, too, do the voices of those opposed to idea of a trail that ultimately would run from German Church Road on the western edge of Cumberland to CR 400E in Hancock County, a distance of about 13.5 miles.
Opponents with concerns over cost and crime have become more vocal over the past several months.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a trail, but this is not the time to be spending a lot of money on it,” said Carolyn Flynn, a Cumberland resident and member of the Buck Creek Township Board. “It’s not a burden the county should have to bear.”
While proponents are optimistic, funding for the project so far has been hard to come by.
The Sugar Creek Pennsy Trail Committee hopes to get a $1 million federal grant from the Indiana Department of Transportation, but that would require a 20 percent match, or $200,000 of local money.
The tourism commission in August gave the trail project its biggest financial boost yet, with a commitment of $10,000 every year for the next three years, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total needed.
The committee also needs a government agency to sponsor the grant application. Hancock County Commissioners and council members have not wanted to commit to sponsoring it without knowing whether more money can be raised from the community for the local match.
Commissioner Brad Armstrong said the board would have no problem sponsoring the grant if the committee was able to raise the money on its own. Otherwise, he said, the county doesn’t have funds to support the project right now.
“I think we’re in agreement that we’d like to see the trail connected,” Armstrong said, “but we have to do it at a time when it financially makes sense.”
That $200,000 match can come in the form of individual donations, corporate giving or in-kind support – like the donation of right-of-way for the trail. The land for Cumberland’s trail was donated, costing the town no taxpayer dollars.
The committee has set up a fund with the Hancock County Community Foundation, allowing supporters to make charitable contributions to the project. Lindley said fundraising has been slow, thus far, but he hopes it will pick up as the project gains ground.
“That’s the big stickler at this point,” Lindley said. “We have plenty of people interested, but to turn that into financial backing will be a little tougher.”
Unlike funding, the concern about crime is a non-issue, proponents argue. Crime has been virtually nonexistent on both sections of the trail.
Greenfield Police Chief John Jester said he doesn’t consider safety on the six-mile Pennsy Trail in Greenfield to be an issue at all, adding that law enforcement has responded to few incidents over the years. He said he can’t remember any calls being serious.
Most of the emergency calls originate from the call boxes that are posted along the trail, but even those typically turn out to be pranks, he said.
“They’re usually kids, playing on the phone,” he said. “Then, they just hang it back up, but we still send someone out.”
The Hancock County Emergency Operations Center has record of seven calls being placed from call boxes along the trail so far this year. Of those calls, only one, for an argument, required police intervention. Three of the calls were hang-ups; one was to check out a suspicious person; one was a fireworks complaint; and one was for a person locked out of a car.
Public safety officials in Cumberland have had a similar experience. Detective Vince Semona of the Cumberland Police Department said one sign was vandalized and a concrete mile-marker tipped over along the three-mile trail, but there have been no reports of crime against trail users.
“There really hasn’t been any crime,” Semona said. “There have been no person crimes and or even anything with the cars parked along the trail.”
Cumberland does send an officer out during shifts to patrol the trail.
Alicia Libla, assistant to the chief of police, said so far the department has had all good reports.
Without any crime occurring on the trails currently, Tracy Doyle, director of the Greenfield Parks Department, said there is no reason to believe connecting the trails will lead to more crime.
“I don’t understand it,” said Doyle of the crime argument. “There are public roads to access Greenfield, so I don’t know why (criminals) would come on a bicycle to commit crimes.”
Cumberland town manager Jeff Sheridan said he heard similar complaints when Cumberland was planning to build its portion of the Pennsy Trail. Since it opened, those have subsided, Sheridan said.
“Those are pretty common misconceptions,” he said. “It took just a short time for people to go from asking about the wisdom of the project to the majority of folks being very supportive.”
Sheridan and Doyle both said they expect a similar change of heart once momentum picks up.
“Trails get a bad rap,” Doyle said. “They can be a hard thing to understand.”
But Doyle said once people start using the trails, they often find them to be a safe way to promote health. They’re also relatively low-cost and low-maintenance amenities for communities. Doyle said Greenfield’s trail required little maintenance during the first 12 years it was open. It received a new top coat recently, but the city did the work itself.
“It’s nothing as far as costs go,” she said.
Especially, Doyle added, when compared with the benefits.
“We can’t build enough trails,” she said. “Every time we build a trail it’s being used by all ages. Land values increase, economic values increase. People want to come to a community that is connected and walkable.”
But opponents to the trail project argue that the cost of building and maintaining trails is not justified by the small number of people using them.
“It’s a waste of time and money,” said Greenfield resident Phil Miller, who opposed building the Pennsy Trail when he was on the Greenfield City Council a dozen years ago. “It’s a nice thing for the few people that do use the trail. It’s the same people over and over again that are using it.”
A 2002 study conducted by IUPUI found that Indiana’s urban trails were heavily used, including Greenfield’s trail. The study found that monthly traffic counts on the Pennsy neared 6,000.
Although that study is dated, proponents argue the trail’s popularity has only grown over the past 10 years, especially now that it has been getting more attention.
By comparison, the Monon Trail in Indianapolis gets about 1.2 million visits annually, according to the Indy Parks website.
Connecting the two trails will only make it a bigger draw, Lindley said.
“The more support we get, the sooner it will happen,” he said. “I believe it will happen, it’s just a question of how soon.”