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Tour de Shawnee brings out Olive Branch, Ill., riders, tourists
OLIVE BRANCH, Ill. -- Before long, the tiny Southern Illinois town of Olive Branch may not exist.
Many residents are pursuing a federal buyout after Olive Branch was devastated by historic flooding in spring 2011. Until the day comes when it is no more, possibly the biggest draw in town is the Tour de Shawnee. The bike ride through the Horseshoe Lake area around Olive Branch draws bicycle riders from hundreds of miles away. In its own way the bicycle tour provides an infusion of activity and cash that helps the town still in recovery mode.
Saturday's ride was the fourth-annual Tour de Shawnee, which began at Horseshoe Lake Community Center. Routes range from 15 to 100 miles, and riders can choose flat or hilly courses.
Amy Cox, executive director of Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone, Inc. said one of the goals in developing the bike ride was to encourage tourism.
"My predecessor came up with this idea and sought out the local community group, which turned out to be Alexander County Tourism, to partner with. Then we developed the route together," Cox said.
She said she would like to think the Tour de Shawnee indirectly helps Olive Branch flood victims because it encourages people to come to the area.
"I think we've been very successful because when you look at Alexander County as far as tourism with the dollars that have been brought in, there's a significant increase in tourism since we started the ride," Cox said. "We like to think we had a part of that."
Christine Samuelson, of St. Charles, Mo., participated in the bike ride two years ago and came back this year to take on the 100 mile route.
"I love riding long distances. I did this ride for the first time two years ago. I've been telling all of my friends that I think it's the most beautiful route," Samuelson said.
Tour de Shawnee has the best volunteers, the best food and the best rest stops, according to Samuelson.
"I think they had an apple pork and sweet-potato stew last time I was here," she said. "I think this is the only 100-mile bike ride I ever gained weight on."
Shirley Bryant, from Charleston, Mo., said this is her third year participating.
"We ride all of the local rides. We rode Tour de Corn in East Prairie," Bryant said. "They have some wonderful volunteers. They really care about us and the ride."
The ride, despite the flooding, went on as planned in 2011, as the water had subsided and the area had healed a bit by October, said Alexander County Tourism president Evelyn Caldwell.
About 160 families were affected by the flood. Homes were destroyed and some residents moved away.
About a year ago, Alexander County submitted an application for an $11 million Federal Emergency Management Agency hazard-mitigation grant, Alexander County Highway Engineer Jeff Denny said.
"About two weeks ago, FEMA needed more information before we can receive the grant," Denny said. "We're in the process of getting back to them. They need more elevation surveys on homes. Every single applicant needs to fill those out. We're missing a few."
According to Denny, the FEMA grant will buy out and raze homes, or elevate homes damaged by the flood.
"There was a lot of damage that people didn't attempt to repair," Denny said. "Some did, but others had no thought of trying to go back. The majority of people chose the buyout option."
A portion of the bike ride's proceeds will help fund the Willard Murrie Scholarship, awarded annually to a Shawnee Community College student who demonstrates outstanding community service. And Alexander County Tourism will use its portion of the proceeds to promote tourism and cycling.
Olive Branch, IL