Editor’s note: The following story appeared in the Jan. 7 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
“Where are your trails?”
That’s one of the first questions Erin Rushing asked a few of his new co-workers at Bentonville firm CEI Engineering Associates. It was March 2000, and Rushing, who earned a landscape architecture degree from the University of Arkansas and is a native Arkansan, had just relocated after spending the first four years after college working in Kansas City, Mo.
“We had a great network of paved and greenway trails, and I fell in love with the trail system up there,” Rushing recalled.
There was no amenity like that for Rushing to enjoy when he moved to Bentonville. But in the nearly two decades that have passed, Northwest Arkansas has raised its profile significantly in the area of cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. Rushing’s career path has been heavily linked to the progress, most recently as executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Trailblazers, a nonprofit organization based in Bentonville that develops trails throughout the region.
Founded in 1996 as part of an initiative to build a 1.75-mile loop trail around Lake Bella Vista, the Trailblazers — whose primary grantor is the Walton Family Foundation, which has been active for many years in Northwest Arkansas trail construction — has gone on to coordinate the development of hundreds of miles of trails across the region.
“Right now we are building a mile and a half of trail a week,” said Rushing, who was the organization’s first full-time paid employee when he was hired in January 2016. “Nobody in the country is doing anything close to that.”
Rushing, 47, said when he arrived in Northwest Arkansas in 2000, he made it a personal mission to play a significant role in the region’s trail development. While at CEI, he worked with the city of Bentonville on one of its very first trail projects in late 2000. He also started doing some consulting design work for the Trailblazers.
He spent 14 years working for CEI, and in 2010 was recognized by the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal as a Forty Under 40 honoree. He designed a portion of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile, primarily off-road, shared-use trail that extends from the Bella Vista Trail in north Bentonville to south Fayetteville. The years-long project linking dozens of popular community destinations and downtowns was completed in 2015.
CEI was one of a handful of firms working on the greenway’s development, which was led by Alta Planning + Design, an international consulting firm that eventually hired Rushing in 2014 to run the daily operations of its Northwest Arkansas office.
Rushing’s path to the Trailblazers was necessitated, in part, by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the oldest, largest and most influential mountain biking organization. IMBA held its World Summit in Bentonville in November 2016.
“In late 2015 and early 2016, there was a big push to get more miles [of trails] ahead of the summit, and [the Trailblazers] needed somebody full time,” Rushing said. “That’s kind of how that evolved.”
There are now seven full-time staffers working for the Trailblazers. As the organization grows, Rushing said the challenge is how to appeal to more users.
“What we are finding is we can do single-track trails, but there are other programming opportunities that we are trying to encompass,” he said. “Rock climbing, skills courses, entry-level riding. Maybe it’s hiking, or maybe it’s cross-country running. There are projects we are master planning right now all over Northwest Arkansas, and they will have different facets to them.”
Rushing said the tourism component of the region’s trail system is strong, but a bigger focus in 2019 will be on the transportation part.
“We know we have our hands full getting more infrastructure in place that will make it easier and safer to get to home from work, whether that’s on the street or shared-use paths,” he said. “We need more on-street facilities, and that’s part of our mission.”
Rushing has three sons ages 18, 13 and 7, and they are all involved in mountain biking. His focus on family has grown stronger since August 2017, when his wife, Thuy, died suddenly from a brain aneurysm.
“I do a lot of things with my kids, and riding the trails is something that we do together that’s special,” he said.