By Brittany Short
I remember attending my first Friends of the Pumpkinvine Board meeting in 2016. The most memorable item on the agenda that day explored the question: What does the Friends of the Pumpkinvine become after all the “gaps” are complete? Conversations about the Shipshewana extension had begun, we were actively engineering the section between County Roads 20 and 33, and several members were planning the first meeting with the adjacent landowners between CR 35 and 20. With all the final gap projects in motion, we needed a vision for the future.
In the six years that followed, we made progress. Amid juggling construction projects, negotiations, and managing a half-dozen retirements of long-term directors, consistent themes emerged. We kept focus on the trail’s completion and realized that maintenance and fundraising, communications and marketing will be required long after that last gap is finished. We created the Friends’ first-ever part-time paid position, an Administrative Manager who handles mail and donation processing, social media and general communications. And we continue to lead the Pumpkinvine Advisory Committee (PAC), a group of representatives from the 4 agencies that manage the trail (Goshen Parks & Recreation, Elkhart County Parks, Middlebury Parks and the Town of Shipshewana).
This organization has many moving parts, and the last few years have exacerbated a preexisting volunteer shortage. So when stakeholders started gathering in early 2021 to develop plans for a new county-wide trails initiative at the Community Foundation of Elkhart County (CFEC), we weren’t really sure how much capacity we could spare. Many board members had reservations about the timing. Maybe the Friends could help when construction is done? Maybe when maintenance is “handled”? As we wrestled with this question, a plan began to take shape.
Over the past several years we’ve had many conversations with Ray Caldwell, Program Officer, at the CFEC. They’d been an amazing partner in recent years and had granted us significant funds, therefore conversations were ongoing and regular. He also happened to be the staff person tasked with getting Connect in Elkhart County (the previously mentioned county-wide trails initiative) off the ground and eventually, handing it off to a qualified organization or helping to form a new one. He understood the reservations of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine board, and our focus on trail completion. But also understood our personal desires to see more of Elkhart County become accessible by trail. So, the CFEC staff did what they do best; they collaborated with us to find a win-win solution.
Ultimately, in April of this year, both the Pumpkinvine board of directors and leaders at the Community Foundation decided to start a journey towards a collaborative future. It looks a little like this:
- CFEC hired me full-time to both finish my work managing the Pumpkinvine gap project (which I’d been doing for several years), and transition high-quality people into the right positions on the Friends board of directors.
- In the time that remained I would be tasked with positioning Connect in Elkhart County for Strategic Planning.
- After Strategic Planning (which will take place during the last quarter of 2022) we will have a better understanding of how the Friends of the Pumpkinvine and Connect in Elkhart County will function long-term.
- With a long-term vision in place, and work to connect the Pumpkinvine finished, we will begin helping communities across Elkhart County connect to each other by trail and provide resources necessary for trail managers to maintain what already exists.
Since that decision in April, I’ve resigned from the Pumpkinvine Board of Directors and Phil Mason, long-time Pumpkinvine Bike Ride co-director and board Vice President, was elected President. And while the organization is in good hands, it’s important to note that the Pumpkinvine has been adopted by decision-makers across the County as an integral part of a much larger plan. I’m confident that the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail has its best years ahead.
In 1975, when Elkhart County Parks imagined turning an abandoned railroad corridor into a multi-use trail, or in 1990 when five community members got together to figure out how to make it happen—they began something special. It’s only because of their efforts that we can envision a County connected by trails. To achieve it will take time, collaboration, resources and a lot of work. But we’re up for the challenge—after all, we’re Elkhart County.
Learn more about the Connect in Elkhart County initiative here.