Riders of the Lanesboro to Whalan segment of the Root River State Trail could possibly be unable to use the trail as late as July 2. The trail segment, which is undergoing bridge replacement, widening and repaving work by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), was closed on Monday, April 8. The closure has left several Lanesboro, Whalan and other area businesses and tourism spots wondering how it will affect the number of people coming through their doors this summer.

"It will affect us," shared Little River General Store owner Gene Mensing in Lanesboro. However, many people have been able to recognize the benefits which will come after having the most popular segment of the Root River State Trail re-paved.

It had been 25 years since the last major Lanesboro to Whalan trail repaving and construction event had occurred. According to area supervisor of DNR parks and trails Craig Blommer, this project has been five years in the making; the trail was only built to last 20 years.

"The blacktop is worn out," he shared while also commenting on the bridgework to be done. "These were old railroad bridges. The timber is starting to weaken and fail."

The DNR will be replacing three of the small bridges along the trail with concrete box culverts. Weather will influence how quickly that work is completed. Once the box culverts are finished, the trail widening and repaving work will commence.

The trail is currently eight feet wide. When the Fountain to Lanesboro segment of the trail was completed, it was widened to 10 feet. This new width has become standard with bike trails throughout Minnesota.

"There may be less of a gravel shoulder, but also more room for bicyclists," shared Blommer.

All work to be done will occur within the trail corridor. He hopes everything is finished before the July 4 weekend since the DNR notice has put the projected completion date for July 2.

If not completed early, the closure will be the most noticeable inconvenience to trail users and tourists who love the leisurely five-mile trip from Lanesboro to Whalan. Blommer said the DNR will not mark a detour because of safety issues with riding along Highway 16, which is due for construction this summer as well.

The Highway 16 project has not been awarded yet, so it is still unknown when that project will begin. The possibility of having two projects limiting traffic to Whalan has been of concern to businesses there.

The popular Aroma Pie Shop is particularly worried. "There isn't a lot I can do about it, but I don't want to be cut off," shared Maggie Gergen, who has owned the 26-year-old pie shop for nine years. She opens her business on April 27 and plans on keeping her regular hours. "I'm just hoping that Highway 16 won't be closed totally," she said adding, "I'll just ride it out."

She mentioned she is looking forward to having an improved trail in the future.

The trail and highway closure could also affect attendance to the Whalan Standstill Parade, which will be held on May 18 this year. Parade committee member Wes Harding commented, "We are holding our breath, so to speak."

He said a majority of people come that day by car, so Highway 16 construction could reduce the crowd. Harding remained optimistic about the chances that the bike trail could be temporarily opened up for that weekend.

The committee is currently looking into that possibility although it would mean all culvert work would need to be completed. No matter what, Harding assured the parade would stay put.

Cedar Valley Resort owner Larry Johnson thought his business might see some effects from the trail closing. "Most of the guests who have already booked, will come," he shared, adding that the resort had already communicated with their guests about the possible trail closing.

Once Johnson got the official news, he said it was better than what he had heard before. There was discussion at one time to have the trail closed in two parts and finished later in the summer. "By having it done in one shot, it will be better," he said.

Johnson recalled when the trail was closed for bridgework last fall. "A lot of people drove to Whalan to get to Rushford. We had a lot more people in town," he shared, suggesting the closing of the trail may not be all bad for Whalan.

However, with the possible Highway 16 closure, Johnson stated people may be less likely to take a gravel road detour to Whalan. He also said he was expecting the outfitting store at the resort to see a decrease in bike rentals. In the end, Johnson continues to be optimistic. "It's hard to complain about getting a new road and a new trail. There is a positive impact at the end."

Recognizing the benefits of the completed trail is helping Lanesboro as well. Mensing said he will be promoting the Lanesboro to Preston trail a lot. "I expected something like this to go on, but with all the spending cuts they (legislature) were making I didn't think it would happen this year." He still expects tourism in the area to be good when he expands his hours at the end of May.

Executive director of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce Julie Kiehne explained that Lanesboro has been asking for the work to be done for several years. "It's not our first time dealing with closing the trail," she stated. "We have to recognize the necessity of fixing the trail since it is certainly due for rehabilitation." She said even more people are likely to come to the area once the trail is finished.

In the meantime, bicyclists and other trail users will be able to use the remaining 55 miles of the trail system. "A lot of people will be disappointed, but I don't think it will discourage people from coming here," said Blommer. The DNR has already put up barricades at the ends of the trail. The river will still be open for tubing and canoeing since no major work will be done on the large bridges, except to pave over them.

Blommer concluded, "This work can't be done in the off season, and we hope people will understand that."

The trail work will be funded through the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment passed in 2008. The trail work is expected to continue in the summer of 2014 with the repaving of the Whalan to Rushford segment. Bridgework is expected to be done on the same segment later this summer.

More information can be found on the DNR website under state trails.