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‘Active Plan’ tour bringing national attention

October 11, 2018

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Active Transportation and Tourism Plan is again in the national spotlight thanks to the Washington, D.C.,-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, which is sponsoring a four-day tour of the plan’s “catalyst projects.”

The Active Plan envisions a 428-mile network of cycling, pedestrian and paddling trails connecting Brownsville and 10 other communities in the Lower Valley. RTC, founded in 1986 to preserve unused rail corridors for public use, worked with the Active Plan Coalition in organizing the tour.

Invited were regional elected officials, media including the Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly and The Daily Beast, architectural designers and others to explore the part of the trail system already open, said Brownsville City Commissioner Rose Gowen, a member of the Active Plan Coalition. Dorian Anderson, author of the popular blog “Biking for Birds,” is also here, she said.

It was decided during a recent meeting between the coalition and RTC that enough of the trail network exists for such an event, which began Oct. 9 with a cycling tour of historic Brownsville and the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, plus a trip to Matamoros and back via the B&M International Bridge.

“ We decided together that it would be a good idea to feature and really highlight that a family can actually do a four-day trip down here and not get bored,” Gowen said.

The schedule for Oct. 10-12 includes a biking tour of the Bahia Grande and Laguna Atascosa wildlife refuges, kayaking and paddle boarding on the Laguna Madre, a biking tour of South Padre Island, and a ride from Rancho Viejo to Resaca de la Palma State Park & World Birding Center, followed by dinner and music at Market Square on the first night of the Brownsville Latin Jazz Festival.

Participants are invited to stick around for two more days, to take in the Brownsville Farmers’ Market and more of the jazz festival, plus take part in a Sunday bicycle trek from Brownsville to South Padre Island.

Gowen said the tour and RTC’s involvement gives the Active Plan project visibility on a national level and, ideally, will get policymakers, business owners, etc. on board and help build momentum toward completing the trail network.

“ We’re hoping that building that story and bringing those tourists, even now, is going to help continue to push us to attract funders and supporters,” she said. “Anything that’s popular and successful, especially in an economic way — if we can prove heads in beds and all that stuff — it’s much easier to move forward.”

The Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, one of the Active Plan’s major funders, donated $100,000 in 2015 for development of the plan, which was completed in 2016. More recently, VBLF donated $2 million to extend the Palo Alto Battlefield trail, and $1.2 million to extend the Arroyo Trail in Harlingen — all part of the network.

Methodist Health Ministries, also a major funder, is helping the Active Plan coalition find a new name for the project by footing the bill for an advertising consultant to help with rebranding and assembling a media package, Gowen said.

Developing the trail network isn’t happening at the expense of other community projects, she noted, since the money comes from grants as opposed to the general fund. The Active Plan complements rather than competes against other projects, Gowen said.

RTC President Keith Laughlin said his organization embraces the Active Plan because it’s a project of national significance.

“ I was in Indianapolis last week speaking at a national conference about parks and recreation, and I got a question from the audience,” he said. “Someone said, ‘Tell us a story about one place in the country that is really doing exciting things.’ I thought about it for couple of seconds and said, ‘Let me tell you about what’s underway in Cameron County, Texas.’”

The Active Plan is one of eight projects in RTC’s TrailNation portfolio, an initiative launched last year to demonstrate how regional trail systems are created, Laughlin said. The Active Plan is especially innovative since it combines eco-tourism as an economic development strategy with the separate goal of making people healthier, he said.

“ The other thing, there’s more involvement at the local level in this project across the county than we usually see in most of our projects,” Laughlin said.

He said the Active Plan is a positive story for a community usually associated with being poor and on the border, and as such a story that needs to be told. Laughlin said the goal of the tour is to draw more state and national attention as a way of building the project’s momentum.

“ It’s one we’re holding up as a national model for the rest of the country to learn from,” Laughlin said. “What we’re trying to do is create models that can be replicated.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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