VerMeer sees a diamond in the rough
LUVERNE -- As Preston VerMeer hikes, bikes, walks and runs along city streets and off the beaten path, he sees things to which most people would turn a blind eye. A neglected neighborhood could be turned into a small park overlooking a pond, a ravine that has collected junk could produce the sounds of a gentle waterfall, and a field of prairie grasses could provide nature's music to outdoors enthusiasts -- if only his plan for a trail could come to fruition.
Some people in this Rock County community refer to the five- or six-mile plan as Preston's vision, but he wants to see it as more than just his vision. He thinks of it more as developing a diamond in the rough.
"We're sitting on acres of diamonds when it comes to enjoying the outdoors," VerMeer said of Luverne, the community he's called home for the last 13 years.
His vision of Poplar Creek Trail would add to the six miles of trail already established in Luverne, following Blue Mound Avenue all the way out to the Blue Mound State Park. The Poplar Creek Trail would add another six miles or more, depending on the ability to get easements and the direction the trail would take.
"If we can add an additional five to six miles of trail, we can connect all the parks and just make a better outdoor atmosphere for hikers, bikers, Rollerblades, whatever," he explained. "In town, it will be used by everybody. It's not going to be a high-speed biker's network."
Eventually, VerMeer would like to see the trail system expand out to Touch the Sky Prairie, as well as east and south of the Rock River.
"My vision is just to have it for the community and clean up the eyesores," he said. "We've got some environmental issues here. Let's get it cleaned up and put in hiking and biking and walking trails. It would be neat to clean up these areas of town so people can use them, and it's not just a barren waste.
"We clean up our mess, and for our efforts we deserve a trail."
VerMeer has traveled the region and the state to enjoy trails in other communities. Among his favorites are those near Lanesboro, Preston, Cannon Falls and Bemidji.
"When you ride the trails ... you think, 'These people have it made over here,'" he said. "We don't get to see a lot of that."
With the money collected from the three-eighths of one percent sales tax established statewide in 2008 through the Legacy Amendment, there are grant opportunities to fund a trail like the one VerMeer envisions.
"Forty-one million dollars has already gone to parks and trails in other communities, and Rock County hasn't gotten any of it," he said.
While that may be true, Rock County was the recipient of a two-year grant from the National Park Service for trail development. Holly Larson, an outdoor recreation planner with the National Park Service Minnesota office, has attended two meetings in Rock County thus far to help keep the process moving.
However, VerMeer doesn't think things are moving fast enough.
He spent about six months doing the research and walking every single step of the trail he proposes to wind through the community. In June 2012, he launched a website to share his vision with others, hoping for both comments and suggestions, and he's also met with the city of Luverne, Rock County, the Luverne Economic Development Authority and the more recently organized Luverne Initiative for Tomorrow (LIFT).
"Everybody's on board, but nobody's approved anything yet. The wheels of government move so slow," VerMeer said. "If we can bring LIFT into this, make it a community involvement rather than government -- a government can give you everything you want, but also take everything you have."
The community recently received a Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grant of $5,000, which was earmarked for mile markers on the Blue Mounds trail as well as bike racks. There could be more money available from the organization to develop the Poplar Creek Trail, and VerMeer said Legacy funds will also be sought.
"There's also some private funding areas where we can get grants to buy land and turn eyesores into opportunities," he added.
Minus any costs for land acquisitions or easements, VerMeer said a good cost estimate for a trail is $250,000 per mile.
"You can probably do it for less, you can do it for more," he said, adding that state guidelines require a 10-foot-wide trail.
"Really, does it matter how much it costs? It's all about the quality of life that we're trying to promote here in the heartland."
Creating a destination
VerMeer said trails throughout nearby Sioux Falls, S.D., draw thousands of people each year, and the same can happen in Luverne if the trails can be built.
"People want to see at least 20 miles (of trails)," he said. "We can really make this a destination."
Luverne is considered to be the trailhead to the Casey Jones Trail, which is being developed through Pipestone County. If the two trails could connect, VerMeer said they'll be able to reach that 20-mile system "real easy."
"We're dealing with 10 to 15 percent of the population that's utilizing these trails, but if you build it, they will come," he said. "People will use it."
Even without an expanded trail, people are coming to bike the 12-mile-round-trip trail to the Blue Mounds State Park. This summer, on June 14, approximately 150 bikers are expected to be in Luverne on a bike tour originating in Sioux Falls.
"They're spending their first night in Luverne, camping on the school grounds and in the motels ... and then leave Saturday for Pipestone, then to Dell Rapids (S.D.) and back to Sioux Falls," VerMeer said. "We have to compete against Sioux Falls, but they want to come out here -- they want to bike."
Fitness for life
VerMeer wasn't always so health-conscious. In 1987, he suffered a heart attack, and doctors told him he needed to change his lifestyle. He'd already stopped drinking alcohol, and he'd given up his cigarettes, too, but there was more he could do.
"When you're only 42 years old, that's a little early to check out," he said.
VerMeer returned home -- at the time he was living in Hills -- and began a walking regimen. That progressed into hiking and biking, and he eventually built up his stamina to run in the King Turkey Day 10K in Worthington in the 1990s.
Since then, VerMeer has run in both the Minneapolis and Grandma's marathons, did RAGBRAI twice and continues to be a contender in the King Turkey Day 10K.
"I can still do it in an hour at 68 years old," VerMeer said with just a hint of a smile. "It's because of (exercise) that I think I'm here today. I monitor my health, get my annual checkup. I don't run as much as I used to, but I'm still out there."
VerMeer said he likes to exercise in some form three to four times per week, for an hour or two at a time, but he isn't always able to achieve that schedule.
"There's 168 hours a week, and we only take 10, 12, 14 hours a week to exercise and stay fit," he said. "You work 40 hours a week and sleep eight hours a day, so you still got 60 hours a week that you're not doing anything."
In January, VerMeer signed up for the Ironman Triathlon program at the Rock County Pool, and finished all three segments of it in a week's time "just to get it done," he said.
Now, he's training for the Brookings half-marathon coming up this summer.
"I'm slowing down a little bit," he said, adding that he's developed a "been there, done that" attitude.
"I'm staying in shape, but when it comes to competition, it gets harder and more expensive," he shared.
Still, he wants to see his vision for an expanded trail system throughout Luverne to become a reality -- sooner, rather than later.
"As a walking testimony that health and fitness are going to keep you alive, that's what it's all about for me," VerMeer said. "That's why I spent six months of my life putting this (plan) all together. It's sitting here. It's a diamond in the rough."