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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

WNC towns say $55 million greenway makes business sense

Construction on an almost 20-mile greenway in western North Carolina will begin soon, eventually connecting the mountain towns of Hendersonville and Brevard on a paved path that only increases 20 feet in elevation.

Yes, for those who prefer to walk or bicycle on flat land, that 20-foot figure – even in the mountains of western North Carolina – is correct, says Chris Todd, the business and community development director for Henderson County. The “how can that be possible” is answered by the fact that the trail will be built over an abandoned railroad line, he says.

A map of the proposed Ecusta Trail Greenway, which when finished will link the towns of Brevard and Hendersonville.

 

Quick facts:

  • Total cost will be about $55 million, and the federal government has already pledged $46 million.
  • Project should be done within three to five years, with some of that due to the timetable related to when the federal dollars become available.
  • The first six miles – beginning with its Henderson County terminus in downtown Hendersonville – should be completed within 12 months.
  • Greenway will be called the Ecusta Trail. “Ecusta” is derived from the Cherokee word for rippling waters, which is appropriate because portions of the trail follow the French Broad river. The name was also used by the Ecusta paper mill, which was in operation from 1939 to 2002 and employed almost 3,500 workers in its prime.

‘Sticker shock’

Chuck Flink has been helping plan greenways in communities worldwide for more than 40 years, dating himself by saying he remembers when the cost of a greenway could be calculated at $100,000 per mile – not the $2 million-plus per mile for the Ecusta Trail and other similar projects.

Chris Todd, Business and Community Development director for Henderson County, walks over the French Broad River on a railroad trestle that will be part of the Ecusta Trail greenway.

“Sticker shock is sticker shock,” says Flink, a professor at N.C. State University and director of its Initiative for Community Growth and Development. Flink has completed projects in 250 communities in 37 states, making him one of the nation’s leading greenway planners and designers.

Communities should look at the return on investment from the so-called “experience economy” in addition to just the initial cost, he says. Part of that includes ensuring enough is spent on a project to turn it into a destination. 

“You have to look at how the money is spent and what the return on investment is to understand the full economic picture,” he says. For example, Flink was involved in planning the almost 40-mile Razorback Greenway in Arkansas, which was completed in 2015 and cost about $38 million to build. The Walton family, founders of Arkansas-based Walmart, was behind the project. According to Walton Family Foundation research, cycling provided $137 million in economic benefits to northwest Arkansas in 2017, which is where the Razorback Greenway is located. Flink says Razorback Greenway provides about $150 million in annual economic benefits.

Towns such as Hendersonville and Brevard have experienced economic hardships due to mills — like the Ecusta paper mill – closing down. Those towns are searching for something new, and often that can be found in the “experience economy,” Flink says.

“What is the next opportunity to create an economic engine powerful enough to replace the industry that was lost?” Flink asks. “That’s how they got to where they are with the Ecusta Trail.”

‘Transformative project’

A tour by ATV of the first six miles of the greenway, starting in Hendersonville, shows the path already making a difference. There are three new breweries, a restaurant about to open and other businesses along its planned path, which parallels U.S. 64. Businesses like Trailside Brewing in Hendersonville, which is located in a closed Lowe’s warehouse, have latched on to the project.

“They know this is going to be a growth tool and a catalyst for growth,” says Todd. Businesses from coffeehouses to you-pick-em strawberry farms have inquired about how they can benefit from the trail.

Chris Todd pauses on a railroad trestle over the French Broad River, which will eventually become part of the Ecusta Trail linking Brevard and Hendersonville.

“It’s going to be a transformative project. We just know it,” he says.

On the Transylvania County side of the trail, Mike Kilpatrick, CEO of STG Solar, says he located his business along the path of the trail for the purpose of opening up cabins on his property and maybe a store. He and his family are frequent visitors to the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 35-mile rail trail in southwestern Virginia, and knows businesses there that have prospered from the trail. Nearby Pisgah National Forest already attracts cyclists, and the trail will attract even more, he says.

Henderson County has an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, retirees and tourism, says Michelle Owens, director of Henderson County Tourism Development Authority. The group she leads, which is supported by occupancy taxes paid by hotels, operates on a $3.7 million annual budget, and put in $2.5 million toward the project. She expects 40% of those who use the trail will come from outside Henderson and Transylvania counties.

“This plays well into the kind of experiences people want to have here, which is outdoor trails and our Main Street,” she says.

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