Many people thought he was out of his mind. Why would anyone want to walk or ride their bike on a towpath alongside the old Ohio Canal? In 1990, when Tim Donovan became executive director of Canalway Partners, part of the big ditch still had runoff soap suds floating on its surface. Other parts were choked with aquatic weeds and tossed-aside tires. Fast forward to 2019.
“People have fallen in love with the Towpath Trail,” says Donovan, who began his position when the organization had three board members and $10 in its treasury. “The trail follows as much as possible that historical path and terminates at a grand public space, Canal Basin Park. It’s like the trunk of a tree. There are all kinds of connector trails that bring it to the lakefront, east and west, and outside the Cuyahoga Valley. Hopefully, it becomes a package that invites more people to Cleveland to learn of the city’s contribution to the nation’s story.”
The official groundbreaking of the Towpath Trail was celebrated June 22, and the last physical stage of the Towpath Trail is scheduled for completion spring 2021. The 101-mile trail meanders through four counties — past farms, fields, forests, factories, homes and businesses. It stretches from Zoar to Cleveland.
Donovan, who lives in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, credits a long list of partners, including the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as making the Towpath Trail a reality. But ask those in the know to name the one person who has been the relentless promoter of the dream for decades, and Donovan’s name is always cited.
Not only was Canalway Partners the chief fundraiser for the trail, it has been the spiritual backbone of the movement. And, at last count, the economic impact of the trail in Northeast Ohio was $250 million.
“I did what I felt had to be done,” says Donovan, a lifelong Clevelander and Cleveland State University alumnus. “Luckily, every time I wandered out on a tree branch, I’d look back to make sure my board was behind me. So if I fell, they’d be with me. But we didn’t fall too many times.”
Instead, along the way, Canalway Partners launched a number of amazing events and projects to build environmental awareness and support the trail. RiverSweep, for example, is what Donovan calls “the largest public one-day river cleanup in Ohio” and a model now copied by many park districts.
Now, Donovan is winding down his involvement on the way to retirement.
“It’s been a great journey. People tell me I can’t go,” says Donovan, flattered by people’s perception that he is irreplaceable. “But, I am 68. I know some people work until 90, but I am not built that way. And, it’s a good time for the transition with the completion of the Towpath, Canal Basin Park and a shift toward more programming instead of construction.”
Donovan will step into the newly created position of Canalway Partners’ senior adviser and says he “isn’t going far.” He’s looking forward to seeing Canal Basin Park be a daytime park where families go to enjoy the green space and then return in the evenings when the area transforms into a magical place with spectacular views of lighted bridges.