Working Together Works: Leveraging Funding for Community-Led Change

Image of Melody Moody Thortis
Moody Thortis

What paves the way for new trails and sidewalks in communities? Many meetings, partners and sweat equity. Melody Moody Thortis, Director of Strategic Impact at the Community Foundation for Mississippi, knows this firsthand working over the last decade as part of a coalition of partners bringing the Museum Trail to life. As part of Bike to Work Week, Melody reflects on the work it took to create the 2.5-mile multi-use path connecting downtown Jackson to Lakeland Drive, which spans two city parks and connects visitors to five different museums and the Mississippi’s Farmer’s Market.

If you build it they will come

More and more, communities are starting to realize that building multi-use paths and bike trails are about so much more than recreation and are now seeing that these investments have been proven to increase economic development, property value, tourism, connectivity, public health and quality of life. Communities that invest in biking and walking infrastructure tend to succeed in the race to retain young talent and often find that amenities like these are often a draw for families who both live in or want to move to places that value livability and connectivity.

Leveraging impact with collaborative funding and partnerships

The majority of funding for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure comes from a sub-section of the Federal Transportation bill called Transportation Alternatives, a grant program managed by and distributed through MDOT and local MPOs to cities and towns that want to build bike trails, paths or sidewalks. This funding, while widely available, comes with a 20% required local match – which means that while many urban and rural communities across the state need these connector paths, or if they want to build a sidewalk to increase safety for their children – if they can’t meet the match required, they could be faced with watching the opportunity slip through their fingers. If communities can’t supply or raise the funds, they may be forced to walk away from available funding even with community demand.

What people may not know about Jackson’s Museum Trail is that its very creation is a unique and national success story of community collaboration, a decade-long effort led by citizen advocates, lifted up by the local business community and supported at the federal, state and local levels. In fact, bicycle advocates across the country have used the story of the Museum Trail again and again as an example of what private sector fundraising and local philanthropic support can do to come together and allow projects to cross the finish line.

A group of people stand at the edge of a bridge on the Museum Trail in Jackson, Mississippi.
(Left to right) David Pharr (current CFM Grants Committee Chair), Melody Moody Thortis (current CFM Director of Strategic Impact), Dr. Clay Hays (Jackson Heart Foundation), Ward 7 Jackson City Council Member Virgi Lindsay, and Cynthia Buchanan (current CFM Vice President of Operations) stand together during the ribbon cutting for the Museum Trail on January 13, 2021.

Community-driven change

Thirteen years ago, a team of people, including CFM board member, lawyer and community visionary, David Pharr alongside Dr. Clay Hays, a Jackson cardiologist and local health advocate, both having served as past chairs of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, began to dream together about the transformation of the former GM&O Railroad into a centralized multi-use path for people of all ages to enjoy in the capital city. As fate would have it, they also assembled a team that included two future CFM staff members, our VP of Operations, Cynthia Buchanan (then Executive VP at the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership) and future CFM Director of Strategic Impact, Melody Moody Thortis (then Director at Bike Walk Mississippi) alongside the Jackson Heart Foundation, Neel-Schaffer, the Greater Belhaven Foundation and many other community leaders and engaged volunteers.

While the team worked with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the City of Jackson to obtain the first phase of funding, the match still had to be found. Over the years, unforeseen barriers including six administration changes, massive water line repairs and cost increases presented further barriers along the way.  But, trail advocates were undeterred and got to work; citizens rallied and began organizing regular trail clean-up days, businesses like Blue Cross and Blue Shield, NuCore Steel contributed resources, Jackson Heart Foundation started a fund, Entergy employees built a trail-head, the Greater Belhaven Neighborhood Foundation donated the use of its land and philanthropists across the metro heeded the call.

Philanthropy can fill gaps and break barriers

Because community foundations are focused on place-based investments, they are unique in their ability to listen deeply to the needs expressed in the communities they serve and can respond by meeting a need, filling a gap or breaking a barrier. The Community Foundation for Mississippi stepped in with a six-figure donation from the John and Lucy Shackelford Fund to fill the funding gap needed to complete the project and break ground! Because of its contribution helping meet the required match, the fund removed even more barriers, allowing organizers to unlock additional funds from public and private sources.

Donors of all types and across sectors came together to pave a new future and truly remind us all of the power of what philanthropy and partnerships can do! The Museum Trail opened in 2021 and stands as a testament to the community, commitment, and collaboration; plans are also currently underway for its expansion, connecting it across the city and the region. I encourage you to celebrate national Bike Month this May by taking a stroll or a ride on the Museum Trail knowing that this community asset was built by the people!