LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One of the largest metropolitan park projects in the country is blossoming faster than expected right here in Louisville.

Despite the troubled economy, tens of millions of dollars have been pouring in to make the dream a reality.

It didn’t take decades of studies and meetings. It won’t require toll booths, and it’s almost paid for.

The thought of acquiring enough land to build a 100-mile long trail and park system encircling Louisville sounds crazier than building bridges across the Ohio River.

When asked which project would be completed first, the bridges or the trail, Metro Parks Planner Lisa Hite said, “I would say the 100-mile loop.”

Louisville is outgrowing its park system in many ways, from the needs of bikers to the range for hikers.

“Our parks are integrated with our neighborhoods. When Cherokee and Shawnee were built, they were out beyond the edge of the city. But as the city grew around them, it meant you could get out of bed, in five minutes, be in a park. It’s not always that way,” said Dan Jones of 21st Century Parks. “That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do this, before development occurred out here, make sure we saved that land and had it in place.”

Jones is heading up the Parklands of Floyds Fork, a 27-mile span of planned parks and trails from Shelbyville Road around to Bardstown Road.

All deals are being sealed, and Jones has done his homework.

“We surveyed this creek and found 41 species of fish and a healthy population of smallmouth bass,” Jones said. “By the time we close everything that’s either under negotiation or under contract, we will have done almost 70 separate real estate transactions in about eight years with no government condemnation.”

But that’s only one-fifth of the loop. The 23-mile span along the river has been open a while, and the project planner says the southwestern span past Pond Creek and the Jefferson Forest is the next piece coming on line.

“That’s a whole different personality. This is a section of our community that has the forest, the Knobs. It’s very challenging, very intriguing topography, fascinating history,” Hite said.

The part of the project most up in the air right now is how to complete the loop from Shelbyville Road to River Road through the bustling northeast end.

But every step of the way in this project, they’re finding a deeper appreciation for parks.

“It’s going a lot faster than we thought it would and so far, we have not done any condemnation, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make this and buy property from willing sellers,” said Metro Parks Director Mike Heitz.

“The Outdoor Recreation Industry Group, which tracks the selling of tents, canoes, bicycles and outdoor gear, even in the recession, that industry is growing between 7 and 10 percent a year, Jones said. “It’s inexpensive entertainment. Anybody can do it. It’s this wide range of things you can do, from very active ball field sports to train running all the way to that quiet walk in the woods.”

At a time when it’s hard to come up with money for anything, they’ve already raised more than $100 million of the $113 million they need to pull this off — that’s more than 90 percent funded.

And they expect the Floyds Fork span to be open for relaxing business by the end of 2015.

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