Although it had been discussed for much longer, several years ago, local bicycling enthusiasts – spearheaded by Paceline Cyclery owner Dave Rogers – began a concerted push for trails in Tahlequah. Now, after years of frustration and delays, but steady determination, they're about to see their dream come to fruition.
Chalk it up to creative thinking and behind-the-scenes work culminating in a partnership between the city of Tahlequah and Cherokee County that will put to good use a 200-acre tract of unused county property. And more than a little credit should go to Ward 2 City Councilor Dower Combs, who was talking about the trail as part of a campaign platform.
One of Combs' campaign pledges was to get the trail up and riding. There have been setbacks: financial difficulties, citizen disputes over location, legal entanglements, and other delaying factors. Though a tentative plan was in the works as of last fall, city and county officials recently came up with a better idea – one that will not only spur development, but will cost taxpayers a pittance: $5 for 99 years. That more than makes up for the fact that the new plan steers the trail location to the Welling area, rather than in the city proper.
Every visionary leader knows quality-of-life elements are the only path forward to economic development. With this region's natural aesthetics, the lakes and river already in place, only a few more ingredients are needed for an idyllic setting. Numerous studies have shown that when businesses and people consider relocating, they look for certain features: good schools, public parks, recreational opportunities, sound infrastructure, and decent jobs. And most area residents have repeatedly put biking, hiking and nature trails at the top of their wish lists.
Tahlequah has a unique set of challenges, and pushback for innovative projects over the years proves that. A few naysayers always want to impede progress. Most are wealthy, and already have what they want and need, but some are curmudgeons whose concerns stop at their own doorsteps. They don't want their tax money spent on long-term plans that will ensure future growth and success for this area, because their focus is on the here and now – and how everything will benefit them personally.
Fortunately, Combs doesn't think that way, and neither do the others who have worked on the trail: the county commissioners; the other city councilors and officials, including Alan Chapman, Grant Lloyd, Clinton Johnson, and Mayor Sue Catron; and past city councilors, plus former Mayor Jason Nichols.
Here's how Combs put it: “[Since] I was elected as a city councilor, it has been my goal to add quality-of-life amenities and attract new economic development to Tahlequah. Many opposed this ideology. This park will fulfill a promise that I made to residents during my campaign. National and regional studies have proved that trails bring in millions of dollars locally and billions of dollars nationally.”
Combs thinks this is "one of the most exciting projects just on the horizon." Catron agrees; she envisions the local trails rivaling those in Northwest Arkansas. And for cyclists in these parts, that's saying something.
Tahlequah already has the bookends of Northeastern State University and the Cherokee Nation, which have long been the twin driving engines of this area. Tourism, too, has played a major role. The bicycle trails will enhance that aspect of life, and there's no question that once we build it, they will come – in droves.