Bob Downing

CLEVELAND: Lots of ground was broken Monday for the northern end of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

Speakers at the ceremony wielded gold-plated shovels and turned over the first shovelfuls of dirt.

They were then joined by about 100 members of the public who brought their own shovels to participate in a community groundbreaking party.

Gary Storum, 65, of Bath Township, and Pat Smith, 64, of Twinsburg, drove to Cleveland and then parked their vehicle. They hopped on their bikes and pedaled to the ceremony.

Getting the trail built in Cleveland will be “really great,” said Storum, who brought a small hand shovel.

Both are involved in the Akron Bicycle Club that sponsors weekly rides on the completed sections of the Towpath Trail, Smith said.

Pictures of 500 more people with their shovels were affixed to a poster attached to a fence. The photographs stretched about 135 feet along Scranton Road in the industrial Flats area.

The ceremony that drew more than 250 people was hosted by the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Metroparks and the Ohio Canal Corridor, a Cleveland-based grass-roots group.

One of the key speakers was former U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, who was hailed as the godfather of the Ohio & Erie Canalway and the Towpath Trail by corridor spokesman Tim Donovan.

Regula, from outside Navarre, praised Cleveland for moving forward to extend the Towpath Trail.

“I didn’t expect it to happen for many, many years, but we’re here,” Regula said. He hailed the groundbreaking as “a great day for northern Ohio.”

The $9.1 million project marks Cleveland’s first publicly funded section of the Towpath Trail and brings the trail to within sight of downtown Cleveland.

The new 3,100-foot trail lies across the Cuyahoga River from the Tower City complex and lies in the shadow of the closed Carter Road lift bridge.

The project also includes bank restoration work to create fish habitat along 2,800 feet on the Cuyahoga River.

The work is being funded by two grants totaling $3 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative fund. The project also got a $3,175,000 Clean Ohio land acquisition fund grant, a Clean Ohio Trail grant of $425,000, a state of Ohio Cultural Arts Facilities grant of $500,000 and $134,069 for habitat plantings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Physically starting to build the Towpath Trail in Cleveland is important and will speed trail completion, said Tom Yablonsky, executive vice president of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance and a longtime supporter of a connection from Cleveland to the Cuyahoga Valley park.

The new section of trail will link the Tremont neighborhood with downtown Cleveland, he said.

The trail in Cleveland is different from the Akron area, Yablonsky said. It is envisioned to be a greenway or park, not just a path, and additional side trails are planned, he said.

A developer, Mitch Schneider of First Interstate Properties Ltd., had earlier built a 1.3-mile section of the Towpath Trail in the Steelyard Commons commercial area. That trail opened in 2007. That is the only section of the Towpath Trail completed in the city of Cleveland.

The city and its partners are working on five miles that will extend the trail from Old Harvard Road north to the proposed 24-acre Canal Basin Park under the Detroit-Superior Bridge.

Completing the trail in Cleveland will likely cost $75 million and take another four years. About $50 million has been pledged or raised.

The new trail will be owned by the city. It will be built by the county. Its day-to-day operations and maintenance will be managed by the metro park district. It is currently owned by the canal group.

To date, 81 miles of the Towpath Trail are complete in Summit, Stark, Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas counties. The trail will run 101 miles when complete. It is done in Summit County. Work is continuing in Stark, Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas counties.

About $93 million has been invested in the trail so far. It gets 2.5 million visitors a year.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.