The idea for a Root River bike trail ran into opposition in the late 1970s and early '80s when it was first conceived.

Opponents at heated public meetings argued that no one would use a bike trail, that it was a waste of public money.

But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and area supporters prevailed, and built the trail along an old railroad path. The 60-mile trail runs east from Fountain to Houston through eight small Fillmore and Houston county communities.

A quarter-century later, those communities are set to celebrate the trail's silver anniversary this weekend with events that highlight the ways the trail has altered the culture - and economics - of the cities it reaches.

Contrary to early concerns, the Root River Trail has become a tourism jugular vein. The DNR estimates some 200,000 visitors use the trail each year.

The combined population of Fillmore and Houston counties in the 2010 census was 40,000.

Other numbers not directly associated with the trail show the trail's massive impact on local economies.

Fillmore County has seen a nearly 30-fold increase in lodging revenue since 1986, when the trail was built. The county also saw $3 million in entertainment gross sales and $11 million in food service gross sales in 2009.

Jennifer Wood, mayor of Peterson, Minn., said the trail keeps her city alive.

"It's the difference between surviving as a town and not surviving," she said. "(The trail) is vital to these smaller towns."

Terri Benson, executive coordinator of the Rushford Area Chamber of Commerce, said the trail also improves quality of life for local residents.

"It's an inspiration for other things to happen in our community," Benson said. "It inspires our city to know things are worth investing in."

Rushford officials recently started plans to build a city bike trail that would connect to the Root River trail.

Concrete figures weren't available for Houston County, but Houston City Council Member Cheryl Sanden said the trail's less tangible effects mean a lot to the city.

"We have lots of people participating with the trail," she said. "It brings a lot of business into town."

Lanesboro Mayor Steve Rahn said it's important for the cities in the area to continue to find funding for the trail. One of the unseen benefits of the attraction has been a sense of teamwork in the area.

"We're all in this together," he said. "The whole area needs the tourism industry. Without the trail and tourism, these small towns would really be in dire straits."

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