500 Miles Through the Carolinas

Posted 11/12/12 by Nancy Pierce in America's Trails, Building Trails

Sophomore Bridgette Conboy loves her idyllic rural college campus, so she doesn't mind driving or taking the crowded shuttle bus on a congested road across an interstate highway to some of her classes at the school's in-town campus.

The Carolina Thread Trail project grew from a desire to preserve local natural areas and open spaces.

By the time she's a senior, Bridgette will have a healthier option: bicycle or walk on a 1.3-mile rail-with-trail between North Carolina's Belmont Abbey College and the town of Belmont. That idea appeals to her—she has fond memories of running high school cross-country on rail-trails near Binghamton in her home state of Pennsylvania.

This short rail-with-trail will be a small but critical link in a grand undertaking called the Carolina Thread Trail.

The Thread idea began just seven years ago when the Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas looked at the area's amazing economic vitality and saw the price: 41 acres of green space was disappearing every day. The foundation convened several dozen community and business leaders to ask: "What is the region's most pressing environmental need?"

The overwhelming answer was "open space preservation," and the Carolina Thread Trail was born.

The Charlotte-based land trust Catawba Lands Conservancy became lead agency in the effort to combine existing and new trails into a connected 500-mile trail system in the two Carolinas, serving 2.3 million people. The name is a nod to the region's textile heritage as well as to the trail's goal of weaving communities together.

The Thread footprint is a study in contrasts.

The trail's southernmost county, Chester County in South Carolina, lost 3.5 percent of its population between the years 2000 and 2010, and its unemployment rate is one of the highest in the state. The Chester County town of Great Falls languishes under a double economic whammy: Interstate 77 bypassed it eight miles to the west in the late 1970s, and all three of its textile mills—the town's economic lifeblood—closed in the 1980s.

Yet this Catawba River town has tremendous potential as an outdoor recreation destination. Soon, Duke Energy will release extra water from its Great Falls hydro dam about 48 days per year, creating class 2 and 3 rapids for paddlers. A pristine lake and islands with geological and historical significance, already protected by a land trust, will become a state park. Nearby, a six-mile unused rail corridor between the rural towns of Lowrys and McConnell is being used by pedestrians. Local leaders recognize the economic benefits of trails and are working to make it an official rail-trail and part of The Thread system.

Sixty miles north, the Charlotte metro region's population grew by 65 percent between 2000 and 2010, the most robust growth of any urbanized area in the nation.

It's also the home of a new, spectacular trail: the five-mile-long Little Sugar Creek Greenway near downtown. Long before The Thread idea emerged, Mecklenburg County bonds, North Carolina water quality and transportation grants, and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds financed this project. It's now the urban centerpiece of The Thread.

In the 1990s, Mecklenburg County had sought to solve two related needs—public recreational green space and improved water quality in the county's creeks.

Little Sugar Creek—which drains Charlotte—was flooding annually, causing millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, dozens of homes were removed, the floodplain was restored and the Little Sugar Creek Greenway was built south and north of downtown.

Near downtown, the creek had been buried under concrete since the 1960s. The state's first indoor shopping center, a motel, gas station, bank branch, strip mall, fast-food restaurants and their parking lots were built on top of the creek. A downtown highway beltway looped over it. The creek supported no aquatic life and had no aesthetic appeal. It stunk.

In 2002, the county began to reclaim the buried creek and its edges. At 10:53 a.m. on August 15, 2007, with little fanfare other than a photographer perched atop a nearby building to record the moment, the final piece of concrete covering the creek was shattered into the murky water.

During the next few years, at a cost of $42 million, the creek channel was re-meandered, and holding ponds and native plants were added. Boulders and rocks donated from construction sites elsewhere in the county were strategically arranged to create rocky outcroppings and water ripples. Finally, an urban trail with gardens, fountains, public art, sculptures, historical placards and pocket parks was completed in the summer of 2012.

Private sector residential and commercial development surged. Where dilapidated buildings and parking lots covered the creek 10 years ago, today people dine on creekside restaurant patios listening to live music and watching joggers, skaters and cyclists whiz by. Stacked franchise stores anchor mixed-use developments with dozens of small local shops and restaurants.

Little Sugar Creek Greenway will eventually meander 15 miles downstream to the Catawba River in South Carolina and an existing 2.25-mile riverside trail in Rock Hill's mixed-use Riverwalk development. There, a world-class velodrome, a canoe/kayak landing and mountain bike trails opened in 2012.

The Little Sugar Creek Greenway near downtown Charlotte. The small building houses a sandwich shop and restrooms, and you can rent bocce balls for play on adjacent courts.
Unlike thriving Mecklenburg County, Chester and other rural counties on The Thread's outer reaches may find it difficult to finance new trails on their own.

So, The Thread employs a unique model. Rather than build the trail top-down, it combines technical support with planning, design and construction matching grants to catalyze each counties' own trail system and to ensure connectivity at the county lines.

Most small towns in The Thread footprint grew up around textile or furniture factories, many now shuttered. But in the countryside, new industrial parks thrive. In early 2012, after 40 inactive years, a 12-mile section of the historical Piedmont & Northern Railway (P&N) was re-activated for freight by its owner, the NC Department of Transportation Rail Division. The P&N interchanges with CSX Transportation at Mount Holly and Norfolk Southern Railway at Gastonia, both within 30 miles of metro Charlotte.

In between these towns lies the unused P&N spur into downtown Belmont that Bridgette Conboy and her Belmont Abbey classmates can be using by the end of 2013.

The Belmont Rail-with-Trail is a great example of collaboration: The Thread paid for the feasibility study, the NC Rail Division is providing planning and design services, and the town won federal CMAQ (Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement) funds to build the rail-with-trail.

To date, the Carolina Thread Trail has raised $16.8 million in private capital, $7.3 million in land donations and $20.9 million in public finding. Charlotte-based Duke Energy, the nation's largest public utility, is a major financial contributor and grantor of access to land along its waterways. As of late 2012, 14 out of 15 counties have master plans, and 100 miles of trails carry The Thread signage, including existing rail-trails in the North Carolina towns of Lincolnton, Gastonia, Albemarle, Oakboro and Troutman. In Charlotte, cyclists commute to work downtown on the Irwin-Stewart Creek Greenway, a rail-trail and part of The Thread.

Like a jigsaw puzzle, the Carolina Thread Trail is filling in mile by mile, connecting this vital and diverse region's communities and its people with a healthy, sustainable infrastructure.

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