NILES — Brisk winds and cool temperatures didn’t stop dozens of area bikers from coming out Saturday morning to celebrate the completion of the Indiana Michigan River Valley Trail at three locations in Niles. The trail now runs uninterrupted for 17 miles from Mishawaka to the north end of Niles.

People first gathered on Stateline Road where a golden spike was driven into the middle of the road to mark where the trail crosses from Indiana into Michigan. Next, bikers traveled to the Niles southern city limits via a new section of trail in Niles Township. The last stop was at Lakeland Hospital in Niles, where there’s a new trailhead, fishing pier and picnic area.

Among those coming out to enjoy the now completed trail were Krista Bailey of South Bend and Hendy Jean of Granger. 

Bailey belongs to Bike Michiana Coalition and the Bike South Bend Committee and said she loves to bike into Michigan. “We’ve been looking forward to this happening,” she said. “This will be my go to route. I feel safe, it’s beautiful as it hugs the river and it’s a doable distance. Will I come up to visit Niles? Heck yeah. We’ll come to grab a bite to eat and enjoy the events in the park.”

Jean said he tries to bike three times a week in the summertime and decided to come out for Saturday morning’s events when he heard about it. “I bike from Leeper Park (in South Bend) to here a lot,” he said. “I like having a longer route to do and a route where there are more trees.”

Alex and Suzannah Deneau of Benton Harbor had a different reason to celebrate Saturday’s trail grand opening. They work for Wightman, the contractor for the projects, and were involved in the design and construction of both trail sections that opened Saturday.

“We biked from the state line today. I hadn’t been on the Riverfront Park section of the trail before,” Alex Deneau said. “I can see us using it in the future and it would be nice to see the trail work its way northward, even to the Kal-Haven Trail.”

Kris Martin of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission said the project has been decades in the making with local governments, community groups, businesses and individuals working together to make it a reality.

“People can now bike from Plym Park in Niles on the north to South Bend and Mishawaka along the St. Joseph River and through neighborhoods and past four universities,” he said. “… Here in Niles, they can also enjoy a scenic view of the river with the Lakeland trailhead.”

Martin told those assembled that the effort isn’t stopping with the completion of the last segments between Mishawaka and Niles. He noted that the effort continues to extend the trail northward from Niles to Berrien Springs and beyond, as well as east from Mishawaka to Elkhart.

“This is the culmination of years and years of hard work,” former Niles Township Parks Commissioner Henry Thibault said. “I first attended a meeting about the trail in 2008. There were three miles then with big gaps. We thought it would be a five-year project but it’s taken 11 years to build. Now we’ve set the groundwork to extend it and also to connect to other trails.”

He and other local officials spoke about what trails mean to communities. “Here in Niles, we can market it as a trail town,” he said. “It’s a vehicle for economic development, but also a way to grow health and give people a sense of place and community.”

“This is huge for the city and for the area,” Niles Mayor Nick Shelton said. “The new section along Brandywine Creek is beautiful. Before, we couldn’t safely bike to the city but now we can make our way safely. I encourage everyone to bike, walk, skateboard and skate to the city.”

Lakeland Hospital in Niles' Chief Operating Officer Jim Schlaman said the Lakeland trailhead is an important addition for Lakeland employees, visitors and the community at large. “It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “We are excited to see it come to fruition and enhance health and wellness. It’s also an opportunity to connect with the community.”

“This is fantastic to see this happening here,” said state Rep. Brad Paquette, R-Berrien Springs. “Michigan is number one in the nation for the miles of trails we have. I’ve spent many hours rollerskating on the trail and I’m excited to be able to go a couple of extra miles on the trail.”

Michigan Department of Natural Resources representative Erin Campbell said the Niles Township and Lakeland trailhead projects celebrated Saturday came about with $520,000 in grants from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The trust fund has provided $2 million to fund a total of 13 trail-related projects in the Niles area over the years, she said.

The fund gets its revenue from interest off oil and gas leases and has awarded $1 billion in grants to acquisition and development projects around the state since 1976.