SAUGANASH — As a suburban kid, Julie Morley knew that trips to her grandmother's house in suburban Niles almost always ended somewhere else.
Being right next to the North Branch Trail, a continuous bike path snaking through more than 13 miles of Cook County Forest Preserves, meant that Morley and her grandma were always an afternoon's ride away from a sundae at Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream in Edgebrook, or a tour of the botanical gardens in suburban Glencoe.
Now that the trail is being extended into Morley's home neighborhood of Sauganash, neighbors are eager to capitalize on being part of that tether, Morley said.
"It really is a dream come true ... to suddenly be able to reach some of the ethnic restaurants closer into the city without having to worry about parking, for example," she said. "So we're looking at the opportunity to work with businesses and put together some really grand plans to dining and cultural events and shopping all along the way."
In anticipation of the extension, set to be completed this summer, Morley and dozens of other trail enthusiasts have spent months tossing around ideas for how to fully integrate bikers and dog-walkers into the communities they'll be traversing.
Convened last year by Northwest Side community organizer Jac Charlier, the group has snowballed into a full-throated grassroots campaign with an official name — the North Branch Trail Alliance of Greater Chicago — and a mission: to spur commercial and cultural life along every mile of the trail, from Mayfair to Glencoe.
"The idea is to introduce all users of the trail to events, dining and shopping in the communities they go through," Charlier said. "We're trying to show that bicyclists can have sustainable businesses they can walk right up to, that they can be part of helping local neighborhoods."
In the short term, that means growing the alliance and hosting short bike trips to sweep trail users into a single communication network, Charlier said. In the long term, it could mean new signs along the path or a web of of business promotions that cross neighborhood and town boundaries.
Taken together, the efforts could build a new identity for the path as a transportation artery, instead of just a recreational getaway, Charlier said.
"When you can suddenly bike to places you might otherwise need a car to get to, the trail gets opened up in people's thinking beyond health and hobby," he said.
That kind of shift would have positive and far-reaching consequences for any area it touches, said activists like Steve Simmons, an organizer with the Active Transportation Alliance.
Simmons and his colleagues are pushing for more bike routes all over the city, including a single continuous path following both branches of the Chicago River. Similar projects have been shown to crank up tourism and boost property values wherever they're built, he said.
"Tourism brings a significant amount of money into neighborhoods that have urban trails, and there are a lot of indirect benefits if you can make them accessible enough for people to rely less on cars," Simmons said. "So I see a lot of economic development and benefits coming together, especially if the community really gets involved."
Some local business owners have already started to see those benefits trickle in, said Laura Guenther, the director of the business collective Everyday Edgebrook.
The owner of Local Goods Chicago, 5422 W. Devon Ave., Guenther said cyclists coming off the trail — which cuts straight through downtown Edgebrook — will often stop in for a drink or a snack.
The next phase of the trail extension "could have much more impact to the area," Gunther wrote in an email, "but only with increased marketing and amenities, like racks and seating."
That extra work will be the bread-and-butter of the North Branch Trail Alliance during the coming months and years, Morley said. If they do it right, they might just be able to replicate the kinds of diverse experiences she had growing up.
"If we can find a way to make all these communities interesting to people from other places, we can show them all the diversity and beauty that the Northwest Side has to offer," Morley said. "It's a beautiful thing to know that you're creating memories so that people's children and grandchildren will be able to go back to all those same places."
The alliance's next meeting will be held at 3:30 p.m. April 29 at a location yet to be determined.
The group is planning its first bike trek for May 20, kicking off at the Forest Glen Woods, 5400 N. Forest Glen Ave., and leading up to the Howard Street Inn in Niles.