When Lisa Schmidtfrerick-Miller drives along Route 394 outside Chautauqua Institution, her sympathy goes out to the bikers and walkers along the side of the curvy road, dodging speeding cars and inhaling exhaust and particulate matter. Particularly during the summer, she said, walking and biking traffic along that road increases, as more people travel that way to get to and from the Institution.
“It would be nice if it were safer and people could get there easily without cars,” she said.
Schmidtfrerick-Miller, who serves on the Chautauqua County Traffic Safety Board, believes the county might have found the solution to the lack of bike and walkways in the area near the Institution: the Barcelona to Chautauqua Institution Shared-Use Trail, a path for bikers and walkers alike that runs from Barcelona Harbor at Lake Erie all the way to Chautauqua Institution.
The Chautauqua County Department of Planning & Economic Development is developing the trail project with the aid of Pashek Associates, a landscape architecture firm based in Pittsburgh. Mark Geise, the deputy director for the DPED and the project facilitator, said the project aims to connect Chautauquans to the surrounding communities during the summer and to encourage people from other parts of the county to visit the Institution throughout the year.
“Think about it from a county perspective,” he said. “Here, we have this incredible resource, Chautauqua Institution, and to the extent possible, we want to not only pull people out of the Institution to experience the other great venues we have to offer, but it’s also important to the Institution that we feed them people.”
The trail will run along the historic Old Portage Trail, an important route to fur traders throughout history, as it linked Lake Erie to Chautauqua Lake, which eventually connects to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
“The idea of creating a trail that talks about that history is very desirable, and it encourages tourism,” Geise said.
He hopes the trail will also promote physical activity in the area through walking and bike riding. Additionally, Geise believes the project will boost the local economy, as businesses and companies will be more interested in moving to the county if there are recreational activities in which their employees can participate.
Jack Voelker, who worked for the Institution for nearly 28 years as the director of recreation and youth services, served on a committee of stakeholders and municipalities from the communities of Barcelona, Westfield, Mayville and Chautauqua, all of which will be touched by the trail project. Before working for the Institution, Voelker worked as the director of recreation in Westfield, giving him an understanding of the recreational interests of people in Chautauqua and Westfield.
“People would inquire about where to bike or hike in the area,” he said.
For this reason, he sees this project as an important asset to all the communities through which it will run.
Though Voelker has lived in this area most his life, he said working on this project exposed him to certain details about local natural resources he had not previously known about.
“I got an appreciation for some sections of the county that were off the trail from where I’ve been,” he said.
The project is still a work in progress, as the county seeks funding in the form of grant money from the state. Additionally, each grant given by the state must be matched by local funding, which Geise said can be difficult to acquire. As a result, the county is working on the project in pieces, attempting to complete one segment each year.
“If it takes us five years, 10 years, 20 years, so be it,” he said. “We want to do it, and we want to do it right. As funding becomes available, we’ll jump on it.”
The DPED is currently seeking funding for segment four of the project, which will run from Route 430 in Mayville to Mayville Lakeside Park.
Though the communities through which the trail will run have responded positively to the project, Geise said some people have expressed impatience for its slow pace.
“The problem is we have limited resources,” he said. “We’re a planning department of two. People say, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ And my feedback is, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’ ”
The Barcelona to Chautauqua Institution Shared-Use Trail is one of 10 recommended projects from the Chautauqua County Greenway Plan, drafted in 2012. All of these proposed projects aim to preserve and promote the natural resources of the area.
“We want to become a mecca for outdoor recreation and active living,” Geise said. “If we can do a lot of these projects and become known as a place where people participate in recreational activities, then that’ll be a boom for everybody.”