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Koko-Go Free Ride, the city's new free bike-share program at 307 S. Main St., near The Foxes Trail, on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

In what was once a dumping ground, Kokomo has kicked off its newest offering: a bike-share program.

Koko-Go Free Ride, first announced by Mayor Greg Goodnight during his State of the City address in March, opened this week in a space that now includes a community pavilion, public swings and a newly-built structure where participants will check out bikes.

The program – located at 307 S. Main St., behind The Foxes Trail and next to the downtown dog park and an intersection of the Industrial Heritage Trail and the Walk of Excellence – includes 24 adult bikes, four child-sized bikes, two tag-along attachments and one tandem bike.

Its hours range from 4-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

The bikes are free to check out for a three-hour time period; participants are required to sign a waiver and leave a credit or debit card with a program employee.

The card will only be charged if a bike returns late or damaged, according to Kokomo city controller Randy Morris.

Morris did not specify an exact fee structure but said as long as riders check back in within the three-hour timeframe, and there are still bikes available for other participants, they will be able to continue riding.

Within the next two weeks, he noted, riders will be able to reserve bikes and complete waivers online.

“And be able to just pretty much take care of everything, where you just walk up, take your bikes out and then bring them back,” remarked Morris.

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Yemisi Serrano, center, and Michael Kaster chat with Koko-Go rental agent Sarah Shutt before taking off on the trail with their bikes from Koko-Go Free Ride, the city's new free bike-share program at 307 S. Main St. on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. Kelly Lafferty Gerber | Kokomo Tribune

This weekend the program will require a bit more human interaction, but city officials are hopeful one of downtown’s busiest times will put Koko-Go off on the right foot, er, pedal.

“We felt like it was very important with the Haynes Apperson [Festival] and all the out-of-town visitors we are going to have in town that we give them an opportunity to see more of our city via our new free bike-share program,” said Morris about kicking off this week.

He believes it is the only free bike-share program in Indiana, and one that was a natural step for Kokomo.

“When you look at all the community development we’ve done, with trails and bike-paths and everything, it gives people that haven’t been biking in a while the opportunity to try it out, see if they still like it and without having the expense of buying a bike and finding out it’s something they’re not interested in,” explained Morris.

“We feel very confident, from the communities we visited that have similar bike-share or pay bike-share programs, or bike-rental programs, that this is going to be hugely successful.”

The bike-share program follows a trip made by four city officials last fall to Portland, Oregon, for a conference hosted by the North American Bikeshare Association.

Attending the conference were Morris, Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, Deputy Mayor David Tharp and Fire Chief Nick Glover, who also serves on the city’s plan commission and park board.

City officials, who partnered with Indiana University Kokomo's marketing program to promote Koko-Go, believe the three-hour timeframe will allow riders to hit all of Kokomo’s trails and possibly visit parts of Kokomo with which they are unfamiliar.

“Part of that is a lot of people might have walked north-south but haven’t went east-west. … It’s important that we do have a lot of trails here, we do have a lot of opportunities for people to see areas of the city that maybe they haven’t been able to see from the windshield of their car,” said Morris.

The bikes were purchased from Kokomo’s Victory Bike Shop; Morris said he has not yet totaled the city’s investment into the bike-share program but noted that Victory Bike was “extremely gracious because they can see the value in this.”

That value will hopefully involve the health of local residents.

Concerns have frequently been raised about Howard County’s health, which has in multiple reports ranked as one of Indiana’s least healthy counties.

Most recently, Howard County received a D for its health grade in a report released by researchers at Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research. The health grade includes a litany of factors related to physical and mental health, along with access to healthy food and medical care.

Before that, Howard County was ranked 80th out of Indiana’s 92 counties in health outcomes, which measure how long people live and how healthy they feel, in findings released in March by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

It finished 81st in health factors, based on behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment. Howard County ranked 90th in health behaviors, finishing worse than the state average in areas like physical inactivity and access to exercise opportunities.

City officials see the bike-share program as one step toward creating a more active population.

“It will take time for the scores to be adjusted as people start to jump on board with the health aspect of not only biking and walking, but going back to what I originally stated: This does give somebody an opportunity that hasn’t biked in years a free opportunity to bike and experience all the great things the community has to offer,” said Morris.

The program is located in a section of Kokomo that has in recent years experienced a renaissance of sorts: a luxury apartment complex across the street from Kokomo Municipal Stadium; a downtown dog park opened in May 2018; enhanced trails; and, across Wildcat Creek, plans for a downtown hotel and conference center.

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Robert Turner from Solid Finish smooths the concrete pathway leading up to the building that is home to Koko-Go Free Ride, on July 1, 2019. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

In addition, the months-old pavilion downhill from the bike-share program is aimed at becoming home for area artists and musicians eager to share their work. It includes one 15-amp plug.

“It’s more for intimate musicians to just kind of hang out. And if somebody wants to throw a hat out or whatever to throw a dime in that would make me feel good. It really would. Because it’s that kind of feel for this area,” said Morris.

“It just feels like the right area. … This is a centralized hub for it all.”

Playing a significant role has been Wildcat Creek.

“People naturally flock to water,” he added. “This gives us an opportunity to see the waterway as it goes through Kokomo. With all the investment from private developers and apartments and with our investments … this is kind of a central gathering point.”

More than a decade ago, said Morris, the section of Kokomo was “a dumping area for all things bad” and at one point necessitated the clean-up of around 250 tires and a garage holding three decrepit cars.

Now the city hopes it will become a gathering place for both residents and visitors, complete with a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Wildcat Creek and the areas around it, in fact, have become of a focal point for city officials.

The Kokomo Common Council in June approved $9.48 million for what was referred to on council documents as a mix of creek enhancement and flood mitigation work.

Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp, in previous comments, described a multi-year, three-phase project affecting portions of Wildcat Creek that run through downtown Kokomo and includes trail work. The spending approved in June was for the project’s third phase.

“Wildcat Creek is not only an important natural and environmental asset to our community, it is also a recreational and economic catalyst. This project protects the environmental resilience of the Wildcat, enabling our community [to] enjoy it for generations to come,” said Tharp.

He said the project creates a loop on both sides of Wildcat Creek from Washington Street to Apperson Way, providing “pedestrian and bicycle access to several private developments, as well as connectivity via the Walk of Excellence and the Industrial Heritage Trail to main neighborhoods through the city and, connecting to the Nickel Plate Trail, to points north in Miami and Fulton [counties].”

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.