ST. JOHNSBURY — A pavilion for bikers now sits at the easternmost end of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, the latest puzzle piece in turning a long-blighted stretch of riverfront land into a town recreation corridor.
Town officials on Sept. 26 unveiled the wooden, 640-square-foot pavilion on Bay Street behind the St. Johnsbury municipal building, just off the Passumpsic River.
The pavilion connects the Three Rivers Bike Path — the first 1.5 miles of the 93-mile rail trail — to the downtown. And local leaders are optimistic the new feature will attract tourists.
“Now we’ve got the trailhead there, which I think is one of the keys to bring the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail traffic right into downtown St. Johnsbury,” Town Manager Chad Whitehead said Monday. “Which was always the goal.”
Work on the rail trail has been going on since at least 2005. The 93-mile path will connect the Champlain Valley on the west with the Connecticut River Valley on the east, following the path of the former St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad, which from 1877 to 1994 passed through five counties.
Only about 30 miles of the trail are open right now, including about 15 miles from St. Johnsbury to Danville. But $2.8 million in state funds were approved for the effort in this year’s capital bill, and crews worked on two sections of the trail this summer, including the installation of two bridges on a stretch between East Hardwick and Hardwick. A section between Swanton and Highgate is slated to be finished by November, and construction on a stretch from Highgate to Sheldon is expected to begin within weeks.
The project has long been seen as an economic opportunity for communities along the trail, which is one reason the new pavilion in St. Johnsbury may prove important for the Caledonia County town.
Assistant Town Manager Joe Kasprzak anticipates that, when finished, the statewide trail will bring thousands more visitors to town.
The aim of the pavilion is to make sure those visitors don’t “stop outside the downtown and get into their cars and leave, but come all the way into the downtown and see all the businesses and restaurants,” said Irene Nagle, a planner with the Northeastern Vermont Development Association who belongs to the St. Johnsbury Riverfront Revitalization Committee, which has been spearheading work on the trailhead.
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The town won a $425,000 grant from the Northern Border Regional Commission in 2017.
This May, the town also received a $35,000 state grant to deal with a derelict building on Bay Street; it was demolished to make way for the new pavilion.
Officials envision the shelter as a spot for bikers to hydrate and rest. Visitors can also appreciate a painted mural mounted inside, before deciding to explore downtown. Planners have been considering hosting bike and equipment services at the site too, along with a more fleshed out trailhead building if more money comes through.
People have already been using the pavilion’s four picnic tables to eat lunch, Whitehead said, and several events have been hosted there, including a Modern Times Theater puppet show.
The Three Rivers Bike Path and the pavilion fit into broader plans to transform the Bay Street riverfront area into a recreation destination.
Whitesaid said the town wants to boost access to the water and build spaces for historical and educational programs. “Making it kind of a walking, touring park area,” he said.
Neglected buildings and empty lots — former industrial operations — have sat along the riverfront for years.
“I think we’ve got to find a way to embrace that riverfront area and embrace these areas that were formerly eyesores and blights,” Whitehead said.
He’d like to see some of those buildings that still stand — remnants of St. Johnsbury’s heyday as a railroad town — repurposed as the riverfront revitalization continues.
The pavilion, he said, is just the start.