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Concord City Council partners with Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail

As Dick Lemieux envisions the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, all would be welcome.

“Mostly, it’s being built for runners, cyclists, roller blades, skateboards, moms pushing carriages, dads pushing carriages,” he said.

Lemieux is president of the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, the group that has been planning and fundraising to make that long-awaited path happen.

The city council voted this week to enter a memorandum of understanding with the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail, a document that will outline Concord’s partnership with the group going forward. That memo moves the Friends one step closer to building the first phase of the trail – but the group will still need to raise about $2 million to make it happen.

The first phase of the trail would extend about 1.3 miles along the east side of the Merrimack River, beginning at Terrill Park near Manchester Street and ending near the post office on Loudon Road. That would be just one piece of the whole Pembroke-to-Boscawen path, which Lemieux said could also link up with a larger network of trails statewide.

“It’s meant to be a place where people can get away from sidewalks and busy traffic,” he said.

The Friends have received about $120,000 in donations so far and plan to hire an engineer for design work soon, said Lemieux, a former Ward 4 city councilor.

According to a feasibility study in 2011, the entire Merrimack River Greenway Trail comes with a roughly $12.2 million price tag, not including the cost of land acquisition. The first phase would cost about $2.1 million and would be built on land currently owned by the city.

Authorized by the council earlier this week, the memorandum of understanding will put Concord’s support for the trail into writing. Past councils have pledged that Concord would pay for future maintenance of the trail once the Friends find the money to build it.

“The heavy maintenance, I think, have to be the responsibility of the city,” Lemieux told the council. “The city of Concord will be in existence long after the Friends of the Merrimack River Greenway Trail disappear, so I think it is a city responsibility. I don’t think it can be done any other way.”

The city doesn’t yet know what those costs will be because the path’s design hasn’t been finalized yet, but several councilors voiced their support for the future Merrimack River Greenway Trail.

“I think a reasonable maintenance cost is not something out of the ordinary for the city to adopt, considering the . . . private investment of time and money to make this trail a reality,” Ward 4 Councilor Byron Champlin said.

Ward 2 Councilor Allan Herschlag said he would be wary of accepting the responsibility for maintenance costs without an estimate of what those bills would be. The city will be responsible for the paved path as well as a boardwalk through a wetland.

“My concern isn’t whether this is a worthwhile project, my concern isn’t with what a positive impact this will have on the community,” Herschlag said. “My concern is with the ability of the city with city funds to be able to maintain this in the future.”

Ward 3 Councilor Jan McClure, who serves on the conservation commission, praised the volunteer work already completed by the Friends.

“This trail has been in the city’s master plan for many, many years, and we have not been able to do it,” McClure said. “And we wouldn’t be able to do it if it hadn’t been for this private effort.”

Even with the memorandum of understanding in place, the Friends still need to find money for construction. It could take more than a year to raise those dollars, Lemieux said. When it’s done, he estimated all of those users could amount to 400 people on the trail each day.

“Realistically, it’s unlikely that we’re going to have $2 million collected with a year,” Lemieux said. “We would like to have it done sooner.”

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

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