Rock Island Summit participants hear Nixon’s ‘winning’ message

By Dave Marner, Managing Editor
Posted 10/11/23

Jay Nixon knows about winning.

He’s done it several times over his political career, first as Missouri’s attorney general from 1993 to 2009 and then as the state’s 55th …

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Rock Island Summit participants hear Nixon’s ‘winning’ message


Jay Nixon knows about winning.

He’s done it several times over his political career, first as Missouri’s attorney general from 1993 to 2009 and then as the state’s 55th governor for two terms from 2009 to 2017.

“The hardest part is already done,” said Nixon who spoke Friday to close out the 7-hour long Rock Island Summit in Eldon. “It’s a (state) park. You’re winning.”

Sixty Missourians with interest in developing the former Rock Island rail corridor into a hiking and bike trail were at the Eldon Community Center for the summit which concluded with the pep talk by Nixon.

“You’re winning for people you won’t even ever meet,” said Nixon addressing community leaders and trail enthusiasts from along the newest state park. “People want what you are doing. Keep doing it one piece at a time.”

He recalled while he was governor how his wife, Georganne, came up with the idea of a 100-mile challenge to encourage Missourian’s to hike or bike the state and track their mileage —25,000 people signed up the first 10 days, he told trail planners.

Nixon reminded them they had just spent an entire beautiful fall day indoors at the summit, planning their next step.

“Be evangelical about your winning,” Nixon said.

That’s a message shared earlier by State Rep. Bruce Sassmann as he was joined by fellow House legislators for a panel discussion on how to proceed with developing the trail from Windsor at the west end of the line to Beaufort and eventually Union on the east end.

“Some how we have to elevate this discussion. Sell this thing on another stage at another level. That’s my next step,” Sassmann told the summit’s 60 participants. “Take this conversation to another level.”

Owensville resident Chrysa Niewald provided updates on behalf of Owensville Mayor John Kamler on the city’s plan to use $100,000 in local funding along with a $500,000 Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) grant to create a safe route to schools trail from Kosark Road to the R-2 campus on Highway 19. A stockpile of fill material has been placed on the proposed trail near West Sears which will be used under State Parks supervision to replace a deteriorated culvert running underneath the old rail bed beside Luster Park.

Another section of deteriorated culvert is scheduled to be replaced under the rail bed east of Rosebud where water came over U.S. 50 during a summer rain event.

She also shared the Gerald community’s plan to use local funding and city labor to develop their segment of trail through the western Franklin County town. The wood-frame bridge over Old Highway 50, east of town and outside the city limits, will need to be replaced as the trail is developed, she told the group. That will not be the city’s responsibility to replace.

One summit participant, Barnett resident and entrepreneur Lisa Burkemper, said she  was “excited to see” the “Trail Town” banners flying in Gerald as they drove through town on U.S. 50.

An RV park on the east edge of Rosebud and directly across U.S. 50 from the rail bed is in operation, she noted. “B&Bs are popping up,” she said of area developments which shows the early signs of economic impact, which supporters of the trail have said would follow.

Niewald, nearing “70 trips around the sun,” shared her often-used line about hoping to be able to ride her bicycle across the state on the Rock Island to visit grandchildren in the Kansas City area before she’s in a wheelchair. She recalled her arrival in Owensville 50 years ago as a newlywed with her husband, Richard, and hearing train whistles as Rock Island freighters rolled through town at 11 p.m. — to support manufacturing operations locally and across the state.

Many of those shoe and cap factories across the Rock Island corridor no longer exist. “Trails are the thing of the future,” she said.

As a former educator, she said trail communities should find ways to get their high school students involved in helping create their “trail town” as the next generation of leaders and developers.

Later in the panel discussion, Niewald recalled a 1990’s story from the Gasconade County Republican on the future of the rail corridor and potential for future use as a trail.

“We’ve been hearing about that forever,” Niewald said. “I’m reminded of the old saying ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ and the Rock Island Trail isn’t going to be either.”

She’s been involved with efforts to develop the trail over the past 13 years and was involved from the start up of the Missouri Rock Island Trail (MORIT) organization. It is now called Friends of the Rock Island Trail (FORIT).

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs over the past 13 years. A lot of people still don’t get it,” said Niewald. “Unless they’ve been on a trail.”

Sassmann said he hopes the “competitive nature” of the trail towns will “drive the trail forward” toward development.

Each community, he said, can “brand themselves” as a “way to make them stand out.”

“See what Owensville, Gerald, Bland and Belle are doing,” he added.

Owensville joins Versailles with plans to develop sidewalk routes to connect with the trail and other improvements for walking routes to the grocery store, schools, or library.

Jamie Morrow, mayor of Versailles, said she’s been telling people to “buy into the vision” of trail development and the “instant gratification” from the economic impact it will have once completed. “People will see benefits as the trail is developed.”

Morrow said she could not understand why some state lawmakers won’t support funding for the trail.

Her concerns were addressed during an hour-long panel discussion including Sassmann and fellow legislators.

Sassmann, who shared that he hopped trains as a teenager from the Bland community and “rode with the hobos,” said the House of Representatives was on board with funding for trail construction. His primary focus remains economic development in the trail communities.

Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, suggested summit participants “get to know your representatives and senators.”

Michael O’Donnell, R-St. Louis, told them to “let legislators know how much local communities have invested” to show them how much “skin they have in the game.”

State Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, whose grandparents met when they worked as telegraph operators for the Rock Island railroad, said trail supporters will need to “work around” the Senate’s budget chairman, Lincoln Hough, a Republican from Springfield.

“I’m really disappointed it didn’t get across the Senate,” said Merideth of a line item funding cut for trail development. “Expect a tighter budget next year.”

He suggested trail communities support a plan for “target-specific parts of the trail” in requests for state funding. He encouraged planners to also seek “different funding streams” including private donations and corporate sponsorships.

Their strategy should include “piecemeal” funding sources as they try to “find a way around the Senate budget chairman.”

O’Donnell added, “It’s much easier to work around barriers” and noted there was obvious opposition to trail development in specific areas of the state, especially around Meta and a pet food manufacturing plant,  Diamond Pet Foods.

Bernskoetter offered his insight into how the Senate works.

“(Hough) doesn’t say much. Just ‘no,’” said Bernskoetter. “Mostly it’s just ‘no.’”

He said the concerns over “unfunded maintenance” at state parks is a concern which has been spoken about. It has also been dismissed by State Parks officials.

He said the approach should be to give money to Owensville, Eldon, Versailles — “somewhere it’s not going to go through someone’s farm. Get it on this end. That end. Then we’ll fill in the middle.”

Merideth noted the Senate also eliminated a request for $2.9 million in federal grant funds for trail development.

“It was a $2.9 million ask for federal money and even that got the ‘no,’” said Merideth. “That’s money we don’t get without the trail.”

He said he called Hough on his way to the summit and shared, “His big concerns included deferred maintenance at state parks.”

“That’s really a smokescreen,” Bernskoetter replied, adding more money was being spent to update parks. “That’s a smokescreen people are using and we need to call them out on that.”

Merideth agreed, adding, “that argument really needs to fall by the wayside.”