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Wolverine Worldwide funds Merrell Trail to get people outside

November 1, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Wolverine Worldwide funds Merrell Trail to help get people outside
The looping Merrell Trail is six miles long on 160 wooded acres of Plainfield Township. Phase 2 will add another 1.5 miles by next spring. Photo via Facebook

When everybody’s inside sitting on the couch, “they don’t really need our product,” said Craig Throne, vice president of marketing at the Merrell division of Wolverine Worldwide in Rockford.

The plan is to get them outside –– and loving it.

Merrell shoes and boots for outdoor enthusiasts is the largest selling brand in the array of footwear marketed around the world by Wolverine. Its Outdoor Group, which includes Merrell, accounts for about one-third of the company’s annual $1.4 billion in sales. So it’s no wonder the new trail for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing enthusiasts near Rockford is called the Merrell Trail — and it’s no wonder Wolverine helped make it a reality.

Wolverine and the Western Michigan Mountain Biking Alliance celebrated the grand opening of the Merrell Trail at the end of September, although it had already been in use for a month. Volunteers from the WMMBA and Wolverine built and groomed it, and Wolverine contributed more than $25,000 to the project.

Scott TenCate, one of the WMMBA volunteers, said the looping trail is six miles long on 160 wooded acres of Plainfield Township property at 2908 10 Mile Road, just east of U.S. 131. Phase 2 will add another 1.5 miles by next spring.

The WMMBA has more than 450 members who spent 3,500 hours building the trail, according to TenCate. A counting device on the trail showed that more than 5,000 mountain bike enthusiasts used it in the first month it was open.

“To handle that much traffic, it needs to be built in a way so as not to hurt the landscape,” said Thorne. Bridges were built for sections of the trail that cross creeks and wetlands, and much care was taken to avoid causing erosion.

“It has been a 15-year project to pull this off,” said Throne. One of the previous proposals for the publicly owned property was for a golf course, but retaining it in a more natural state for a variety of low-impact outdoor sports activities was deemed to be a bigger benefit for a broader segment of the population.

He said there are other uses planned in the long term, possibly including a baseball diamond and an archery area. The hiking/biking trail is the first of those elements.

In 2010, Outside Magazine — one of the premier publications for wilderness sports enthusiasts — named Grand Rapids a “Best Town for Mountain Biking.”

“This was a unique opportunity for us, close to an urban area, to create another outside recreational opportunity for people,” said Thorne.

At Wolverine, he said, “we don’t make bikes, we don’t make helmets (for bicyclists), but our brand is actually all about getting outside. We believe the world’s a better place if people get outside more.”

Some corporations support public preservation of natural areas, which Wolverine is all in favor of. But Thorne said the approach is also to encourage people — especially young people — to get out and learn to enjoy those natural areas because then they are more likely to become advocates for their protection later in life. He joked that the approach is to “put the horse before the cart.”

Merrell also has begun Pack Projects, offering small grants to a variety of organizations that encourage inner-city kids to get outdoors and appreciate nature. One is Concrete Safaris, a nonprofit founded in 2008 in East Harlem, N.Y. Merrell will help fund outdoor exercise for 30 kids five days a week: swimming, running, hiking, cycling and fishing in their community. There will also be urban gardens created for use by 400 kids.

Another Pack Project is funding for Keeping It Wild, a Georgia group that sponsors outdoor adventure trips for kids in underserved communities to some of the most beautiful remote areas in the Southeast U.S.

Wolverine established the Wolverine Worldwide Foundation in 1959, which now supports more than 190 charitable organizations that have a positive impact on communities around the world, such as 1% For The Planet, Two Ten Footwear Foundation, The Conservation Alliance, Land Conservancy, Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids and Habitat for Humanity.

The company’s green practices include the purchase of electrical energy from renewable sources to power the headquarters in Rockford. Wolverine re-engineered most of its footwear packaging, abandoning the industry’s usual methods and materials and replacing those with 85 percent recycled cardboard for boxes and 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper for packing tissue, as well as using biodegradable shoe forms and soy-based inks.

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