Once opposed to the construction of a multi-use trail adjacent to his home, Ellsworth, Maine, resident Marc Blanchette is living proof of the health benefits produced by easy access to trails and greenways.
And today, as a city council member, he is a vocal proponent of extending the Ellsworth Rail-Trail to connect with Maine’s 87-mile Down East Sunrise Trail, the longest continuous stretch of the East Coast Greenway to date.
“To me, having a trail is like having a school or police department or a fire department or library. They're all on the same level of importance,” says Blanchette, a grandfather who owned a Windsor chair-making business for nearly 25 years.
But that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the rail-trail’s 2011 opening, Blanchette and his wife were against its construction because they stood to lose a significant portion of the railroad right-of-way – a natural buffer – along their property line.
Once the trail was built, Blanchette did little to realize its benefits for 18 months. Inactive and overweight, he finally made a weight-loss commitment at the urging of his family in March 2013 after years of procrastination.
Unexpectedly, he found motivation right outside his back door. Blanchette realized a lot of people were using the trail; he loved seeing children ride their first bicycles on it. Soon he was joining them – almost daily.
“I literally could step out my front door and go walking, go skiing, go biking … I do all three on the trail,” says Blanchette.
Coupled with dietary changes and a newly discovered love of healthy cooking, daily exercise on the trail led to rapid weight loss for Blanchette. He dropped 10-20 pounds with relative ease. In 22 months, he had lost 184 pounds.
In the process, he and his wife became supporters of the trail. “We both quickly turned 180 degrees on this, and became very much a proponent of it,” he says. Five years later, Blanchette walks almost every day, mixes in bike rides of up to 30 miles and enjoys cross-country skiing with his wife in the winter.
As a member of the city council’s trail extension committee, Blanchette is working with the Maine Department of Transportation to plan and develop a 1-mile connection to the Down East Sunrise Trail, which will create safe, traffic-free access to active transportation for thousands of Ellsworth residents.
Despite his efforts, Blanchette is often asked, “Why are we wasting money on paths?”
He is passionate in his response: “A road is a method of transportation, a path is a method of transportation, a bike path is a method of transportation. We can't lose sight of all the different methods. It isn't just roads. And in some cases, I think that communities have lost that sight.”
Having experienced the life-changing benefits of trails firsthand, Blanchette is striving to make sure that Ellsworth and its trails continue to evolve. In 2020, trail use has surged throughout the East Coast Greenway corridor. At the local level, communities are making plans to build upon the COVID bike boom and the desire for more transportation options.
In a post-pandemic world, Ellsworth’s connection to the Down East Sunrise Trail also will bring long-distance cyclists and weekend athletes to the community. “They're spending money in local businesses, eating food in the local restaurants, staying in the local hotels and motels,” says Blanchette, who believes such amenities are important to sustain the community’s current level of growth.
Nearly seven years after he first stepped on the Ellsworth Rail-Trail, Blanchette can hardly imagine he was once opposed to having a life-altering resource at his doorstep.
“The path is wonderful. It's such a great place to go walking. I can't speak highly enough of this. Looking back on it to think that I was against it at one time … It’s a win-win for everybody.”
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