City, community celebrate trail completion
Cochran Park reopening
The City of Council Bluffs celebrated the completion of the First Avenue trail and the Cochran Park renovations on Friday, May 19 with a morning ribbon cutting ceremony and a community party in the park in the evening.
"FIRST AVE and the improvements to Cochran Park are nothing short of amazing, and this event marks the start of an engaging and active new public space," Council Bluffs Mayor Matt Walsh said in a press release.
While construction of the trail took only about two years to complete, the genesis of the project goes back more than a decade, when in 2010 Iowa West Foundation granted the city $2 million to help purchase two vacant grain elevators that were sitting between West Broadway and Second Avenue in order to demolish them.
"The removal of that single obstruction allowed us to tear up the railroad tracks and become the trail that it is today," Iowa West Foundation president and CEO Brenda Mainwaring said in her remarks before the ribbon cutting.
Mainwaring, who joined Iowa West in 2020, first became involved in the project when she worked for Union Pacific Railroad. This unique position allowed her to follow the First Avenue trail from burgeoning concept to completion.
"When you first start out on a project like this, you wonder if it's ever going to actually happen," she said in an interview with The Nonpareil. "So to be able to stand here and look both directions and already see how much it has changed the community is more than I could have imagined at the time."
The First Avenue trail runs from 35th Street east to 16th Street and features amenities conducive to walking and biking, or just spending time outdoors.
Along the two-mile trail, people will find six plazas, and two shade structures with water fountains and benches. The trees will provide relief from the sun, and in the fall the leaves will create a colorful corridor. Pedestals have also been erected for future sculptural art.
The city plans to work with businesses alongside the trail to paint murals on the sides of the buildings that face the trail.
"A lot of thought and love and effort has gone into making this more than a trail," said Brandon Garrett, the city's chief of staff. "FIRST AVE has already been recognized locally with an award from Omaha By Design and internationally with an article in National Geographic Travel. All of these things are elevating the presence of Council Bluffs in this metro (area) and in our region." FIRST AVE is an acronym for Furthering Interconnections, Revitalization, Streetscapes, Transportation, and Aesthetics for a Vibrant Economy, Garrett said.
"It's all of those things," he said. "It's more than a trail. This trail connects neighborhoods and districts within Council Bluffs. It connects into Omaha. And it's also a critical piece that connects the country … FIRST AVE is a two mile segment of trail right in the middle of the 3,700 mile Great American Rail-Trail that will someday stretch from Washington D.C. to Washington state."
The Great American Rail-Trail is a project of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a D.C.-based advocacy organization that works with communities across the United States to plan, build and maintain trails in urban, suburban and rural areas, many of which consist of former rail lines that have fallen out of use over the years.
"We've been around as an organization since the mid '80s, helping transform former rail corridors into walking and biking trails, keeping them in the public right of way," said Great American Rail-Trail project manager Kevin Belle, who came to Council Bluffs for the ribbon cutting ceremony. "Over the years, we sort of saw a trail across the country forming itself, and in 2019, just exactly four years ago, we launched the route across the country when we realized it was over halfway done on its own."
There are about 1,700 miles still to go before the Rail-Trail is finished, allowing people to bike uninterrupted across the country.
"What we love to see is this kind of a trail right through the town where it took something that used to divide the town and makes it into an asset that unites people," Belle said. "And it's almost in the middle point of the Great American Rail-Trail, so when people are biking across the country, this is a great place they're going to want to stop. But, most importantly, the people who are going to use this every day live here."
Roughly 60% of Council Bluffs residents live within one mile of FIRST AVE, and the city expects it to get a lot of use.
Garrett ended his remarks as he often does, with an original limerick written for the occasion:
"As many will come to attest, FIRST AVE is the trail that's the best. Omaha downtown or Washington bound, the gateway to the east or the west." For the ribbon cutting, instead of using the traditional large pair of scissors, city officials and other stakeholders held crêpe paper streamers across the trail, and a gaggle of schoolchildren from nearby Edison Elementary School tore through the paper and ran into Cochran Park to play with some of the brand new equipment.
Cochran Park is located along First Avenue between 21st and 22nd streets. The three-acre park features a baseball field, two new basketball hoops, four new pickleball courts, and a mini-pitch for 3-on-3 soccer.
Also, thanks in part to a "significant" donation from local electrical maintenance company Power Tech, a new playground was installed. The play area includes climbing areas, treehouse-like platforms, shade structures and tube slides.
"It's amazing to drive by and see how heavily used it is," Parks and Recreation director Vincent Martorello said. "When I was here the other day, putting the finishing touches and working with staff, one of the neighbors came up to me and said that he has seen more activity in this park in the recent weeks since it's opened than he has within the last number of years."