TRRC report focuses on successes and future projects

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


Director Mallory Hanson provided the Turkey River Recreational Corridor’s (TRRC) 2022 annual report at the latest Elkader city council meeting. The report included an overview of projects, the impact on tourism and what the future holds for the TRRC and its endeavors. 


Hanson first discussing the TRRC’s funding events and grant activities. This included several items of note, such as assisting the city of Elgin with RAGBRAI funding and the multiple karaoke fundraisers that were used to benefit the current Motor Mill Inn project and Osborne Campground project, which is still in the preliminary design phase. 


According to Hanson, the campground will be located near the wildlife exhibit and include RV sites, tent sites, a shower house, playground, sewage dump station, picnic shelters and extra parking spaces. An added feature is that the campground would connect the existing trails and amenities within the park. 


“As an Iowa Great Place, the Turkey River Recreational Corridor (TRRC) works to connect our three partnering communities surrounding the Turkey River to develop and enhance the existing natural resource base through the creation of land and water trails to serve as the catalyst for economic growth and development. This project complements our mission perfectly,” Hanson said in a separate interview. 


This discussion also brought attention to the citizen-led planning meeting held in Elkader back in January, which was used to search for funding options, as well as highlight projects and prioritize them. During this event, several potential projects were identified, including improvements to Founders’ Park, Keystone Park development, Lover’s Leap expansion, safety and walkability/accessibility improvements, trail expansion and proposed pedestrian bridges and wayfinding signage development.


As a result of this visioning, the TRRC has been working with the city of Elkader and Elkader Main Street to evaluate existing wayfinding signage and create a plan/map for expanded and branded signage. Once the Keystone Bridge project is complete, Hanson indicated TRRC intends to “identify potential funding for that project.”


The report also highlighted the Iowa Tourism Award presented to the TRRC for “Outstanding Niche Marketing Initiative.” This award was for TRRC’s 360-degree interactive video of the 98-mile Turkey River Water Trail and was uploaded to the organization’s website. According to Hanson, the water trail’s page was the most viewed page in 2022 as a result of the video. The interactive map can be found at The individual videos can also be viewed at


“The interactive, online video gives potential travelers and users a chance to ‘experience’ the river virtually before they plan their trip. This is especially useful during these unprecedented times of social distancing and travel restrictions,” Hanson explained. 


But perhaps the largest project occupying the TRRC is the ongoing Elkader to Elgin trail development, which is currently in the planning and fundraising stages. The trail, which has previously been reported on, will create a connection between Elkader and Elgin, forming a massive Backbone Trail network of 172 total miles of multi-use trails across the region. It will connect to the Shooting Star State Trail in Minnesota and is expected to “create a huge economic benefit for Clayton and Fayette counties.” 


“Longer trail systems that connect communities, parks and other sites draw in more out-of-area visitors and extend stays and, therefore, have a larger economic impact on communities,” Hanson said. 


According to the 2021 Northeast Iowa Economic Impact Study provided by Hanson, once completed, the economic impact in the region is estimated to  each over $60 million annually. However, it should be noted the study is based on extrapolations and a “scaled-up” calculation method, which the study itself said “is imperfect and has its flaws,” before stating “it is one simple way of estimating the future economic impact of a trail network that is not yet fully constructed.” 


The same study, when it looked at four regional trails, including Trout Run Trail, Turkey River Recreational Corridor, Prairie Farmer Recreation Trail and Pony Hollow Trail, which encompasses 42 miles of the proposed Backbone Trail network, only produced an estimated $14.8 million on total annual economic impact. 


However, the TRRC remains fully committed to the cause, which Hanson said is to “connect our three partnering communities surrounding the Turkey River to develop and enhance the existing natural resource base through the creation of land and water trails to serve as the catalyst for economic growth and development.” 


Based on data provided by the Iowa Economic Development Authority/Iowa Tourism, that mission has been successful. By promoting the corridor as a region encompassing Clermont, Elgin, Elkader and Motor Mill in Clayton and Fayette counties, there has been a steady increase of visitor spending since 2016 by approximately 14.5 percent. 


“We know that the TRRC is a part of that increase in visitor spending, but not the only piece to the puzzle. The key to sustained tourism benefits is partnership and continued promotion and growth in our rural communities,” Hanson said.


Hanson’s position is somewhat backed up by trail counting data, which was acquired by in person trail counting and a survey over the summer and eight infrared trail counters installed throughout the corridor. 


According to the data provided by Hanson, several sites were compared, including Founders in Elkader, Gilbertson’s in Elgin, Motor Mill, Pony Hollow and TRRC in Clermont, among others. Between March and November of this year, the counters showed an average of 106 users per day across all eight locations, with the highest daily averages coming at Pony Hollow with 380 and Motor Mill with 283. 


Interestingly, though, the days of the week with the highest averages were not the weekends, but weekdays, which implies heavy use by residents as opposed to tourists, who would likely use the trails on the weekends. 


In fact, across the eight sites, five of them recorded the lowest use on Saturday, while three had their lowest daily use on Sunday. Only two sites, Motor Mill and Pony Hollow, saw any significant increase over the weekend, but only on Sunday. 


By Hanson’s own admission, this data relies on a “calculated assumption” that weekend users are tourists, but Hanson concluded the assumption is “based on the fact that we know these existing trails are creating a positive economic impact on our communities,” referencing the aforementioned economic impact study. 


But the data is prone to other issues as well, such as double counting the same user and, oddly enough, ant colonies, which caused a spike in the total daily users during the infrared counting. 


In response to questions regarding the accuracy of the trail user data, Hanson stated, “The TRRC conducts in person trail counts annually to gather demographic data and to compare counts with the infrared counters. This helps to ensure the infrared data is accurate. Any time a large spike or decline is seen in the data, the TRRC evaluates that date and time to deduct what may have occurred.”


Regardless of the trail use count, there is cause for concern moving forward, especially related to attracting tourism as the “pandemic boom” of 2021 wears off. During that time, northeast Iowa saw an increase in travelers, but in 2022, Hanson admitted that “number dropped substantially in both Iowa and in Clayton and Fayette counties.” 


Hanson believes the drop is a result of less travel restrictions and is not unique to the TRRC. In Hanson’s view, the number is “expected to ebb and flow,” eventually evening out over the next two to three years. 


Despite the drop in tourism, the TRRC remains on its current course, with no change in the direction of its projects and programs. Hanson sees potential expansion in terms of TRRC marketing, with consideration being given to working with travel writers and influencers, looking into larger regional and statewide partnerships in print and online advertisements and having more of a presence at trade shows throughout the state and Midwest.  


All of the TRRC’s efforts are done to promote a region which Hanson believes is “nationally significant,” with its unique sites and being “nestled in the heart of the Driftless Area.”


“These locations are linked by the special, scenic beauty of the Turkey River,” she noted. “Visitors relish in the abundance of wooded hills and rich, rolling plains, streams and rivers, diverse wildlife and recreational opportunities.”

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