By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, Feb. 11, 2017 -- As we get ready for the 10th annual banquet of the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association -- which is set for next Saturday, Feb. 18, at the West Des Moines Marriott Hotel here -- we can't help but think back over the decade of these banquets, recalling how much fun they've been and how much good has happened because of them.
They're sort of mid-winter gatherings of the summertime gang who have made our 89-mile paved recreational trail in west central Iowa one of the busiest and most popular in the nation.
The banquets are the only annual fundraiser of the RRVT Association, which does all the marketing and promotion of this trail that is owned by the conservation boards in Dallas, Guthrie and Greene Counties. In nine years, the banquets have netted more than $110,000 for the association. The volunteers who are on the group's board of directors have pooled those funds with other donations, and used them to attract the bicyclists and other trail users to come from across the nation and around the world to enjoy our trail -- and the 14 towns and three counties it traverses.
Ahead of last year's banquet, I talked to the past treasurers of our association and determined that we've spent more than $330,000 since 2008 in advertising and advocacy for the RRVT. What did that produce? In 2004 and '05, just before the non-profit association was organized, statistically-based estimates were than 75,000 people a year were on the RRVT, which was then 56 miles long. Now, electronic-beam counters report there are more than 300,000 people per year on the expanded trail that is built on a former railroad right-of-way that linked all our towns.
"It's true," I told the crowd at the 2016 banquet, "that there are more people coming into these towns on the trails than there ever were coming into them on trains."
Lisa Hein, the veteran of 28 years of trail development for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, was guest speaker at that banquet and told the crowd that the RRVT has been "a game-changer" among recreational trails in Iowa, in the way it's been operated, marketed and promoted. She called the RRVT Association "a model as a private-public partnership." She looked across the crowd of 175 people and said, "A lot of trails would just die to have this many people at a banquet."
Which brings up a couple of fun stories, and I say they're "fun" because they've turned out to be pleasant memories when at first they seemed like nightmares.
The first banquet, in 2008, was held in the basement of The Port restaurant on Lake Panorama. We advertised we had some neat auction items, that we'd tell the story of the RRVT and explain what we as an association wanted to do for it. But we had no idea how many people would attend. "People just kept coming, we packed that room and it got pretty hot," said my wife Carla Offenburger, the founding chairperson of the association. "The worst part was that we weren't sure we had enough food to get everybody served. So I went around to all the board members and ordered them not to eat until everybody else in the crowd had been through the line."
Total attendane was 153 that first night, and the association netted $8,589. We were astonished, pleasantly so.
In 2011, when former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack was speaking in the banquet room of the Lake Panorama National Resort & Conference Center, the crowd just kept coming. It wound up that 300 people were there, forcing the facility's general manager John Dinnebier and his staff to scramble and open up another room. But there was plenty of food for our supporters, who heard a terrific speech about Vilsack's lifetime of bicycle riding and we raised $17,776 with the auctions, sponsorships and donations.
At the 2011 banquet, former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack was speaker, and she is shown here with KCCI news anchors Mollie and Kevin Cooney, who were in the crowd. All three are strong advocates for recreational trails in general and the RRVT in particular.
In 2015, with oncologist and adventurer Dr. Richard Deming giving an inspiring speech, we had 252 in the Marriott ballroom here and, with 19 different sponsors and the auctions, we raised a record $21,000.
We've become known for having good speakers. Besides the four I've already named here, they've included cartoonist/artist Brian Duffy, KCCI news anchor and trail booster Kevin Cooney, WHO radio's nationally-known morning show co-host Van Harden (who grew up in Adel and still lives there "four blocks from the Raccoon River Valley Trail," which he recited as a mantra that's lasted his lifetime), and the legendary Charlie Wittmack after he had climbed Mount Everest and completed an 8,000-mile "World Triathlon" from England to Everest. One year, just to change up things, we presented magician & comedian Ben Ulin and he had the audience howling.
At the 2015 banquet, John & Ces Brunow (left), owners of All Ability Cycles in Jefferson, sponsored the featured speaker, oncologist & adventurer Dr. Richard Deming (right), of Des Moines. In the photo, Deming is shown accepting the check from then-RRVT Association chairperson Cindy Jensen, of West Des Moines and Panora. Deming donated his speaking fee to his organization Above + Beyond Cancer.
We have another excellent speaker for the 10th banquet next Saturday, Terry Rich. You know him now as the CEO of the Iowa Lottery, but he's a storytelling entrepreneur who grew up in the little RRVT town of Cooper, became a major success in cable television and then TV production, and led a complete renovation of the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines before he took the lottery job. In recent years, he has also taken up bicycling and tells a fun story of how he is just now discovering the beauty and wonder of Iowa's recreational trails. You can read more about him in another story, headlined "We'll All Get Rich at RRVT's Feb. 18 Banquet."
We'll have a nice cocktail time, terrific banquet meal and lively fundraising auctions happening during the evening. Over the years, we've offered phenomenal bicycle-related artwork in those auctions, usually a new bicycle or two, vacation packages around the U.S., lunches with leading Iowans, and even huge whole pork loins from the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in the trail town of Perry.
The traditional pork loins from the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in the RRVT town of Perry, shown here at the 2016 banquet by RRVT Association board members Phyllis Drake, of Jefferson, and Bob German, of Dallas Center.
You can get the evening's time schedule, menu and banquet tickets ($50 per person) online by clicking right here.
Come join the fun and be part of the success story of one of America's best recreational trails!
Questions? You can reach the author by email at chuck@Offenburger.com.