About a decade ago, neighbors in Webster Groves banded together to preserve a thin strip of forest they were certain was destined for development. They raised more than $100,000 and bought six acres along West Kirkham Avenue.
But the donations weren’t enough. To secure the last few parcels, they turned to a new public agency.
In 2004, the Great Rivers Greenway District contributed $192,500 to buy the final three acres, helping create the Shady Creek Nature Sanctuary and setting the stage for a new trail to one day run down Shady Creek through Webster Groves.
And for the following eight years, that was how Great Rivers Greenway worked. Its staff teamed with neighbors, partnered with cities, quietly patched together land and slowly built 114 miles of trails throughout the St. Louis region.
Now, Great Rivers is on the verge of a vastly expanded and much more public role — potentially handling triple the money it does now and acting as the funnel for taxes to renovate the Gateway Arch grounds.
On April 2, residents of St. Louis city and St. Louis County will vote on Proposition P, which would raise sales taxes by 3/16 of one cent, or about 2 cents on a $10 purchase — and nearly triple the money Great Rivers would oversee.
Advocates anticipate the tax would generate $31 million in its first year, or about $780 million, including annual growth in sales, over the 20-year life of the tax.
Forty percent, or about $12.5 million next year, would return to St. Louis city and county, to be used for park maintenance and development. Great Rivers would administer the rest.
It would bank 30 percent, or about $9.4 million next year, for use in building its own trails. And it would oversee another $9.4 million as custodian of the public dollars for the renovation of the Arch grounds.
Great Rivers’ revenues, if the tax passes, would soar from about $10 million a year to $20 million annually, not including the Arch dollars.
Some critics of the tax measure doubt that city and county parks are in such disrepair that they need $12.5 million more a year. Others don’t believe in tax increases. And many are concerned about the design and expense of the Arch grounds renovation.
Hardly anyone, however, has publicly criticized Great River’s mission or track record.
“Great Rivers Greenway has not gotten a lot of publicity, but it is certainly one of the most important initiatives in the city and in the region,” said Jeff Rainford, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
St. Louis doesn’t have mountains, Rainford noted. It’s not near the beach. But it could one day have the most complete, connected, widespread trail system in the country, he said.
“When done,” he said last week, “it will be unparalleled.”
Still, even those who support the trails have at times expressed concerns over the tax. City Alderman Scott Ogilvie advocates for cycling, loves trails and says his constituents want more paths, and want them built more quickly.
But he notes worry among his colleagues over the size of the Great Rivers staff — just nine employees — and their capacity to manage the public money for the high-profile, expensive Arch grounds renovation.
“This project,” he said, “is bigger than everything they’ve done in the last decade combined.”
‘FAR BEYOND US’
Great Rivers has been funded for the past decade by a 1/10th-cent sales tax, passed in 2000 by the residents of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Half of the tax money stayed within each of the areas in which it was raised, to pay for park maintenance and improvements.
The other half created the Great Rivers Greenway District, aimed at building a network of walking and biking trails.
The district’s office, set up in a restored suite with hardwood floors and glass conference rooms above Delmar Boulevard storefronts in St. Louis, operates much like a small design firm.
Three project managers bill working hours to their projects. Executive Director Susan Trautman directs staff and manages large proposals. A 12-person board — six trustees from St. Louis County, plus three each from St. Louis city and St. Charles County — oversee Trautman.
Operating costs have increased slowly over the years, from $1 million in 2003 to a budgeted $1.7 million this year, according to district records; salaries and benefits have risen from $415,000 to $993,000. Trautman makes $139,000.
The agency’s biggest source of revenue by far is the 2000 sales tax. Last year, Great Rivers spent $16 million of its $18 million in total expenses on buying land and building trails.
It counted more than 1 million users in 2012 — residents biking Grant’s Trail through suburban Kirkwood, walking the forested Al Foster Trail into Castlewood State Park, or heading from the industrial Missouri Research Park onto the Katy Trail, in St. Charles, and miles more.
Regional officials have widely praised the office for its efficiency and effectiveness.
Cheryl Thompson, recreation superintendent in Florissant, said Great Rivers staffers “know the whole process of putting a trail together” and build “really, really nice” trails.
Mike Oppermann, parks and recreation director in Webster Groves, said projects that Great Rivers helped complete — a new bridge, a creek bed rebuild, the Shady Creek Nature preserve — would connect the Shady Creek trail all the way to Jefferson Barracks Park, linking Webster Groves neighborhoods and businesses to the rest of the region.
Besides, he said, his residents like parks.
“We are landlocked,” said Oppermann. “We are highly developed. Open space, green space, is at a premium.”
Great Rivers, he said, is a resource. “Far beyond us,” he said, “they have had a tremendous impact.”
Trautman, 54, who lives in Sunset Hills, was in their shoes recently.
She spent 10 years as the parks and recreation director for Des Peres, and managed the construction of the city’s $27 million community center, The Lodge. Before that, she worked in Clayton, first as the city parks director, then as assistant city manager, and then as executive director of the community recreation center.
She was hired to run Great Rivers in 2010.
She’s been working in parks since her teens, she said.
‘PLENTY TO DO’
Last week, Harold Lasley, 74, was walking his dog along the Ruth Porter Mall trail, a newly landscaped greenway running north of Delmar Boulevard at DeBaliviere Avenue, named after the advocate for fair housing for African-Americans.
“We walk through there every morning,” Lasley said, nodding down at Mickey, a fuzzy 7-year-old terrier.
The mall, long a walkway, had fallen into disrepair over the years. Hills and overgrowth blocked the trail from view. Residents complained it attracted drinking, drug use and gangs. Police responded to periodic violence there.
Then, this past year, Great Rivers stepped in. Eventually, the 1.3-mile section could extend about six miles farther north, connecting Forest Park to the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“I’m glad they cleaned it up,” Lasley said.
Trautman acknowledged that not everyone loves the trails.
When a group of residents fought last year to keep sweet gum trees on a trail in University City, for instance, in effect blocking the pathway’s renovation, the Great Rivers staff moved on.
“We don’t have to make people unhappy,” said Trautman. “If they don’t want it, that’s fine. We go work somewhere else. We’ve got plenty to do.”
Still, Great Rivers has collected proposals for at least 130 new miles of on-street bike paths and off-street trails, at an estimated cost of $140 million.
Work won’t halt if the new tax fails. The district won’t scrap its master plan. But trails currently being engineered could take 20 years to finish, staffers estimate.
If Prop P passes, however, everything now planned could get built in a little more than a decade.
The work would eventually connect trails stretching from Washington University through the University of Missouri-St. Louis to Ferguson, from Forest Park to Creve Coeur Park, and from Grant’s Trail to Jefferson Barracks, among other routes.
When finished, St. Louisans would be able to ride their bikes from the old barracks all the way to the Katy Trail.
Walter Metcalfe, senior counsel at the Bryan Cave law firm and chairman of CityArchRiver, the nonprofit spearheading the planning and fundraising for the Arch ground renovations, called Great Rivers a “model of governance.”
And that, in part, is why Metcalfe thought the agency could become the custodian of tax dollars for the Arch project.
There are practical reasons, too, he acknowledged. The district, as a public agency, can get good rates on bond measures, thereby borrowing money with less expense than could CityArchRiver.
But the main reason, Metcalfe said, was that Great Rivers’ involvement tied the Arch grounds to communities across the region, through their neighborhood trails.
Metcalfe said he had no concerns about the agency staff’s taking on such a large new task.
Great Rivers started small, just as a business might, he said, and developed policies and procedures that work. Now, he said, they’re ready to expand.
Trautman and her board have already begun acting as if they’re handling Arch project money. They approved a list of projects, as required by the proposition on the ballot. And Trautman has put before the trustees, more than once, resolutions and contracts needed to pass some of the earliest dollars to CityArchRiver.
Great Rivers can handle the extra load of overseeing and disbursing the new tax money, she said.
“We do have a plan. We do have a vision,” Trautman said. “We’re not an operation that’s still trying to pull it together.”
She noted, however, that she’ll have to hire more staff.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This replaces an earlier version that reported incorrect amounts for the cost of salaries and benefits in the 23rd paragraph.