by Kimberly Kinchen, business network writer
Riders on the Kickapoo Rail Trail (Image: Fred Delcomyn)
In 1988, David Monk founded the nonprofit Heartland Pathways. Its goal was to support conservation and trails in East Central Illinois for two reasons: to preserve the genetic diversity of wild Illinois prairie and its grasses and create recreational opportunities for the region’s communities. Monk’s group would eventually join with the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation to raise private funds to purchase abandoned rail lines. Decades later, and through the combined efforts of a bevy of local groups that included the Forest Preserve Friends Foundation and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District, some of those former rail lines have been reborn as the Kickapoo Rail Trail.
It took no time at all for the 6.7-mile trail between Urbana and St. Joseph to become a hit. When it opened on August 25 of this year, the Kickapoo Rail Trail drew between 350 and 400 people to celebrate, and as of late September it is attracting an average of 291 visitors each day. PeopleForBikes even got involved, awarding a grant to the project in 2016 for Phase 1 of construction.
Outside the Wheelhouse restaurant (Image courtesy of The Wheelhouse)
Enter Ryan Rogiers. After stints in some of the best restaurants in the country, including Chicago’s famed Alinea, Rogiers and his wife Abbie returned to their hometown of St. Joseph. Opening his own restaurant was something he’d wanted to do ever since he’d finished culinary school and the couple decided they could bring something to their hometown that it didn’t yet have: a reasonably-priced farm-to-table restaurant featuring locally-sourced ingredients. In scouting a location, the Rogiers found a space whose side door just happened to open onto the Kickapoo’s planned route. When they ran a Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the restaurant’s launch and opening in May, they adopted a distinctly bike-centric theme. They called their eatery the Wheelhouse and decked its walls with bikes.
Rogiers factored the trail’s proximity into his business plan but he didn’t anticipate just how many trail visitors would fill the seats of his restaurant. “We saw an immediate impact on the weekends,” he says. “Saturday and Sunday were just a constant stream of people all day long.” The Rogiers are working to add a trailside patio for outdoor dining and the University of Illinois is donating bike racks.
The staff at the Wheelhouse Restaurant in St. Joseph, Illinois (Image courtesy of The Wheelhouse)
They are far from alone. Businesses as varied as dry cleaners and local banks have supported this first phase of the Kickapoo, as well as a planned expansion. “Members see the expansion of the trail as a potential source of business,” says Nora Maberry-Daniels of the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce. “They welcome all the new visitors and customers to St. Joseph.”
The full trail will eventually stretch 24.5 miles, traveling from Urbana through St. Joseph, then east through Kickapoo State Park and into Danville, just up to the Indiana-Illinois state line. Rogiers is planning a second restaurant along the route of the expansion, and has already purchased a site. “We got a good deal on it and it’s in a good location anyway,” he says. “But we are anticipating that from March through October it will be another destination on the bike trail.”