People noticed changes occurring in Rutherfordton when the Purple Martin Greenway neared completion three years ago. A bicycle shop opened, an ice cream store changed locations to be nearer the trail. A developer won town approval in 2019 to build Park Crossing, a 180-unit apartment complex at one end of the greenway.
None of that would have happened if not for a two-mile paved path that connects two parks, says Doug Barrick, town manager of the town of 3,600 residents that is 55 miles southeast of Asheville. It allows visitors to explore wildlife, creeks, waterfalls and local plant life, not far from downtown.
“It hasn’t happened overnight, but it’s growth that’s in line with what our rural community’s needs are,” says Barrick, in his ninth year of leading the town.
Big cities like Charlotte and Raleigh, along with small towns like Rutherfordton, are using greenways as a way to improve quality of life for current residents, and attract tourism dollars and new businesses.
With that in mind, North Carolina lawmakers designated 2023 as the “Year of the Trail,” a celebration of greenways and paddleways. It’s also a nudge to prompt residents to visit a greenway, state park or recreation area to hike, bike, ride a horse or even paddle a kayak in this geographically diverse state.
There’s plenty of money in all of this, too. People spend $28 billion annually on outdoor recreation in North Carolina, according to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Tourism related to trails also sustains more than 160,000 North Carolina jobs, according to the Year of the Trail organization.
A mix of 60 state organizations, nonprofits and businesses, including NC State Parks, VisitNC, and State Employees’ Credit Union, are helping to support the Year of the Trail campaign with special events. The Great Trails State Coalition, a group that lobbies for more state spending on trails, wants to promote events in all 100 counties with tie-ins for local governments and businesses.
Local governments say greenways can improve the physical health and well-being of residents, while also easing road congestion and serving as an economic development tool. Since 2014, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have been working to create the Cross Charlotte Trail, a 30-plus-mile greenway from Pineville through center city and north to the UNC Charlotte campus and Cabarrus County. It is costing more than $110 million including land acquisition and construction.
The Cross Charlotte Trail will add to Mecklenburg County’s existing 66.7 miles of greenways and put 140,000 residents and 130,000 jobs within walking distance of the trail. While Mecklenburg County has hundreds of miles of both paved and natural surface trails, the Cross Charlotte Trail, would allow residents to travel without a car from one end of Charlotte to the other. City leaders hope this addition will make Charlotte nationally recognized among the top 25 U.S. cities with the most multi-use trails.
Raleigh’s Capital Area Greenway System has more than 100 miles of greenways, highlighted by the 27.5-mile paved, uninterrupted Neuse River Greenway that stretches from Falls Lake in North Raleigh to the Johnston County line in southeast Raleigh. Also popular in the Triangle is the 22-mile American Tobacco Trail that connects Durham, Cary, Apex and other areas.
Back in Rutherford County, the 13.5-mile Thermal Belt Rail Trail connects Forest City, Spindale, Rutherfordton and Ruth. More than 100,000 people use the trail annually, and it is particularly popular with bicyclists.
“Unfortunately, our trail counters don’t differentiate between residents and tourists, but our suspicion is it’s about fifty-fifty based on how the numbers go up on the weekends,” Barrick says.
The trail along an old rail line cost $7 million to build, and was completed in 2019. More than 90% of the funding for the trail came from the RHI Legacy Foundation, which was formed after the community’s hospital was acquired by Duke LifePoint Healthcare in 2014.
About two-thirds of Rutherfordton’s population lives within a mile of the Thermal Belt Rail Trail, Barrick says. The two greenways have been homeruns for the county abutting South Carolina.
“Our goal was to provide an avenue for community wellness, so our residents would have a better quality of life,” he says. “These trails help bring people together. We’ve really seen it come together to build community.”
The trails also have been “great for business,” according to Barrick, including nearby restaurants and a bicycle shop.
“People say all the time that we want to grow, but we want to keep that small-town feel,” Barrick said. “These trails have helped create a sense of community. They build a camaraderie with folks.” ■
The Year of the Trail includes support for several organizations that promote efforts to make everyone feel comfortable in the outdoors.
Outdoor Afro is a national organization focusing on inclusion in outdoor recreation. North Carolina has chapters in Asheville, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and the Triad.
Black Folks Camp Too was started in Brevard after its founder Earl Hunter went on an epic camping road trip across the U.S. and Canada and saw only one other Black family at a campground.
Issa Vibe Adventures began with three friends in Charlotte who wanted to make nature more inclusive to Black people. They organize hikes in Charlotte and across the state.
Black Girls Do Bike has seven N.C. chapters in North Carolina with an especially active group in the Raleigh-Durham area. The group champions cycling for women, especially those of color.
Latinos Aventureros en las Carolinas began with two friends in Gastonia and Morganton who took their first hike during the pandemic in 2021. The group hosted 98 events
in 2022, mostly centered around hiking. Open to everyone,
it offers information in Spanish to help Spanish speakers
Wheelchair and stroller accessible trails at state parks can be found by Googling the phrase “state parks with accessible trails.”