June 6, 2023 at 3:15 p.m.
Borgerding sees Lake Wobegon Trail economic opportunities take shape
After more than 20 years, Cliff Borgerding is starting to see the vision for the Lake Wobegon Trail take shape.
“There is such an economic opportunity along the trail,” he said June 1 wearing a T-shirt with Lake Wobegon Trail on the front. “It’s about celebrating small towns, the connections. The stories of Lake Wobegon that Garrison Keillor came up with are classic Stearns County stories about Stearns County people.
Local businesses in communities along the trail are seeing the benefits of the trail coming through their communities, he said, citing Art in Motion and the BOHO Café in Holdingford, Bad Habit Brewing Company in St. Joseph, Oak Station Coffee and Cone in Freeport, The Outpost Mercantile in Sauk Centre and Jordie’s Trailside Café in Bowlus.
If anyone knows about small town life, it is Borgerding, who grew up in Freeport and is a 1969 graduate of Melrose High School, lived in St. Joseph, and currently he and wife Lindacall Avon home. He is a history buff, whether about his family or communities.
He laughs when asked how the Lake Wobegon Trail came to be. For him, it goes back to the 1970s when he worked in St. Cloud, with employees traveling from Stearns County communities, like Osakis, Sauk Centre, Melrose, Freeport, all towns along Interstate 94 running parallel with the railroad. He always thought the railroad should have put buses on the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks to transport these people, but they never did, and he called it a “missed opportunity.”
At the time, Borgerding was a St. Joseph Jaycees member, a club that was instrumental in building the Millstream Park system.
That’s what the Albany Jaycees did with the Lake Wobegon Trail, he said.
“The Lake Wobegon Trail was the brainchild of the Albany Jaycees, led by Leo Sand, Jack Evens and many more from Albany,” Borgerding said.
In the 1990s, the Albany Jaycees approached the Stearns County Board of Commissioners with the idea of turning the Burlington Northern Railroad bed into a bike trail. They were encouraged by the county board to come up with $100,000, Borgerding said. The Jaycees raised $150,000.
“They went back to the board and said, ‘Here’s the money. Now build a trail,’” he said.
Almost 25 years ago, in the fall of 1998, the first stretch of the Lake Wobegon Trail from Albany to Sauk Centre opened. Since then, there have been trail expansions, and currently there are 70 miles of trails in Stearns County, some that hook up to other trails.
“In the not-too-distant future, our trails system will have nearly 400 miles of connected trails in the center of Minnesota,” he said.
Stearns County has two projects currently in the works to connect additional trails – a 12-mile extension of the Beaver Island Trail to Clearwater and the Dairyland Trail from Brooten to Albany for another 26 miles.
The trails are well traveled. A 2012 study estimated over 300,000 people used the trail, with another 200 to 300 people who bike coast to coast using this trail.
“We have an economic opportunity to bring millions of dollars into our local economy as a result of the Lake Wobegon Trail system, and it’s only going to get better with time,” Borgerding said.
The Lake Wobegon Trail Association promotes the trail and economics of the trail.Currently, they have a seven-member board organizing three summer rides – the Caramel Roll Ride the second Saturday in June, the Lady Slipper Nature Ride the third Saturday in June and the Caramel Apple Ride the Saturday after Labor Day – as their only way to raise funds for the organization, along with money raised by the Friends of the Trail.
Borgerding, who has been on the board 20 years, officially retired in December 2022, but he is still helping with the rides because he does not want to see the organization disband.
“We need people who see the benefit of the trails to join the association, people who use the trails and businesses who have a vested interest,” he said.
It was through his involvement with the association that he attended Bike Day at the Minnesota Capitol, and he met the Lanesboro chamber president, from southern Minnesota, and learned about their trail system, which has been a big plus for economic development. He cited the example of construction of a million-dollar theater in Lanesboro because of the increased popularity of community and professional theatre productions.
Borgerding sees this as a model of what could happen in central Minnesota.
“The Lanesboro chamber director said it took 20 years before the business community realized the opportunities provided by the trail,” he said.
He believes more economic opportunities are possible in central Minnesota. Borgerding recalls when his hometown, Freeport, had three grocery stores, implement and repair shops, a car dealership and even the Yellow Canary Café.
His trail promotion thinking cap is always on.
“I’m trying to come up with a Lake Wobegon cocktail. There’s that history of MN 13. All these things can come into play,” said Borgerding who has LWTRAIL on his vehicle license plates.
At age 72, he loves biking or walking on the Lake Wobegon Trail, where he has met people from England, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, France, Germany and Spain. He talks about taking the jaunt off of the trail near Peach Drive in Avon, walking into the Avon Hills Forest North, a Minnesota scientific and natural area, relishing the sights and sounds of nature.
“There are acres of natural forest that are truly like it was when the first settlers arrived, with lots of trees and wildlife,” he said. “You can walk out there and it’s so peaceful.”
To him the Lake Wobegon Trail is a perfect connection to the history and stories in central Minnesota. His long-range goal is to write a book, a combination of a tour guide and history of the communities along the trail.
“It’s all about celebrating small town communities,” he said.