In front of an audience of regional business leaders and members of the hospitality industry on Wednesday, former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz encouraged communities to put aside stereotypes and invest in bicycle-powered opportunities.
At the Columbia County Tourism Awards Banquet, hosted by Dino’s of Portage, Cieslewicz spoke on the behalf of the Wisconsin Bike Federation. As executive director of the organization, Cieslewicz has lobbied state and federal officials, educating audiences about the benefits of bike-friendly community development and in the hopes of garnering the needed investment to unite Wisconsin’s lengthy, though disconnected, bike trails, making the state “America’s Best Ride.”
“Bikes are seen like canaries in the coal mine,” Cieslewicz said. “If you’ve got a community that’s great for cycling, it’s probably a great place to live in a lot of other ways.”
The message has already found a receptive audience in Portage Mayor Bill Tierney, who is an enthusiastic proponent of the proposed Portage P.A.T.H.S. (Portage Area Trail Heritage System), creating hiking and biking trails that will circle much of the city and connect with the Ice Age Trail.
“It’s just over 65 miles of multi-use trail and sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes,” said Tierney of the proposed project. “So the whole premise is for people to be able to get all the way around the city and through the city in a safe, efficient and pollution-free manner.”
As with Portage, Cieslewicz would like to see the rest of the state connected with bike trails, extending some of the already existing long trails so they can form something like a numbered intra-state highway for bikes with odd numbers running north-south and evens running east-west.
Many of Wisconsin’s bike paths were developed as part of “rails-to-trails,” converting abandoned railroad lines to bike paths. But there was no long term plan for connecting these paths.
Wisconsin has become the “Detroit of bicycles,” as Cieslewicz put it. “Maybe I should work on that marketing, but Detroit is coming back,” he said. Still, the fact remains cycling has an estimated $2 billion impact on the state economy by attracting enthusiasts and manufacturing of some of the top bike and accessory brands. In Wisconsin, bicycles are a bigger industry than deer hunting, he said.
At the county level, there is also a push to develop Wisconsin’s draw for biking enthusiasts. “There are 14 loops that we have throughout the county,” said Marianne Hanson, executive director of the Portage Chamber of Commerce. “The idea behind these loops is that we can then connect them with the loops that are going up throughout the state of Wisconsin to be part of that same system.”
Hanson agreed with Cieslewicz on the economic impact of cycling. “As far as the Bike Federation goes, of course we are supportive of making sure money is spent on that tourism in the state,” she said. “Like he said, bicycles created some 14,000 jobs.”
At the bottom of all the plans and good intentions from all directions, there is still a need for investment to bring these projects for full fruition.
“I have drawn the conclusion that the traditional funding mechanism that we have for our tax levies would never allow for this to be completed,” said Tierney. “So we have to go outside the known parameters.”
Tierney has proposed a handful of sources to bring together including making the P.A.T.H.S. a kind of utility to collect use fees from landowners on the path, grants, aids and general support from community businesses.
That would make the Columbia County Tourism Awards Banquet and ideal place to have this conversation.
Following Cieslewicz’s keynote address, Pardeeville Village President Bob Becker introduced the presentation of awards to businesses and entrepreneurs recognized for their unique impact on the community and Columbia County’s economic growth.
Among winners were Ted Goeres, who was presented with the Hometown Hero Award for his support of the Lodi community pool, and Joanne Genrich, who was recognized for her work in Earth Day cleanup and her contributions to Portage PRIDE.