Trail of the Month: January 2014
"When the planning was going on, there were some who couldn't imagine spending the money on a walking and biking trail that now can't imagine life without it."
Straddled between two well-known tourist hubs in the Florida Panhandle is Blountstown, a small city in Calhoun County with only two traffic lights. Nonetheless, it is a growing destination. At the center of this movement is the Blountstown Greenway Bike Path, which was taken from an unlikely prospect to the "heartbeat of the community" by a surprising trail hero, a radio-station owner.
"When the planning was going on, there were some who couldn't imagine spending the money on a walking and biking trail that now can't imagine life without it," says Kristy Terry, executive director of the county's chamber of commerce.
She continues, "Blountstown is about 50 miles from Tallahassee on its east side and Panama City to the west. We get lots of pass-through traffic. Many [people] who are headed to the beach from Tallahassee, or who are on their way to Tallahassee for a football game, stop and stretch their legs here and really enjoy the trail."
Offering a pleasant respite for both road-weary travelers and locals, the trail's northern end is pine forest and gently rolling hills that give way to swampy lowlands as it ventures toward the Apalachicola River. Even through downtown, it retains its serene character; restaurants and shops just a few feet away are accessible but don't disturb those on a quiet retreat, and the lush natural surroundings are a haven for wildlife.
"I saw three deer yesterday, and I've seen foxes, wild hogs, hawks and a coyote," says Ben Hall, the city's fire chief, who runs on the trail every day after work. "It's safe and well marked. About the only thing you might have to worry about is a squirrel running up your pants leg."
Its very peacefulness and beauty have gone a long way toward dispelling the fears that surfaced when the idea for the trail was first brought forward more than a decade ago.
"Opponents were worried about potential crime associated with the trail. They worried that there would be people loitering up and down the trail," says David Melvin, owner of Melvin Engineering, the firm that guided the trail's development. "But they came around after the trail was complete. They couldn't catch the vision of it until they really saw the use. Now it's a huge source of pride for the community."
The trail's purposeful design, stringing together the city's most-prized attractions, also enriches and broadens the experience that one would anticipate from a mere four-mile trail. One of these highlights is the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement on the north end of the trail. With several historical buildings in a rustic farm setting—a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, grist mill and others—the museum provides a glimpse of life in Northwest Florida during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mid-trail, exhibits inside the restored depot at M&B Railroad Memorial Park tell the story of the Marianna and Blountstown line on which the rail-trail was built. Out front, the railroad's original steam locomotive #444 is a cheerful sight with its cherry-red caboose. With less than 30 miles of track, the railroad was Florida's shortest, but it was so important to the region that the M&B was dubbed "Meat and Bread." During its long tenure, from 1909 to 1972, it carried, at one time or another, agricultural products, lumber, manufactured goods, mail and passengers.
"Tourism is considered one of our best forms of economic development," says Terry. "We see the trail as a way to capitalize on the resources that we have."
For Hall, the trail's value is personal. "I started running two-and-a-half years ago for health reasons," he says. "I'm 5'6", and I weighed 200 pounds. My doctor said, 'You've got to do something, or I'm going to have to put you on medication.' So I just started walking, then running, and lost 50 pounds. At first, I could only run for five minutes. Now I'm training for an ultra-marathon that should take five hours."
This current zest for the trail has come a long way from its beginning in the late 1990s when faith in the trail was less certain. "The city and county governments were pretty hesitant on going forward with it," says Melvin. "They had concerns about how it would work and if it would benefit the community."
But there was one person who never doubted. "Harry Hagan was a real champion for the project," says Melvin. "He pushed the project through major hurdles because he thought it would make a real difference in the community."
Hagan could be considered a celebrity for a place like Blountstown. He owns two local radio stations, WYBT (1000 AM) and WPHK (102.7 FM), which broadcast music and community news. He is also involved in the city's Rotary Club. A runner or bicyclist he's not; he's simply a citizen with a vision for the trail and the will to see it through.
It was a long and arduous journey. "It's not an easy thing to put one of these trails together. There's a lot of opposition to them," says Hagan. "It took us 15 years to do it. It didn't just happen."
In addition to obstacles of perception, there were logistical hurdles to face. "The biggest issue in those early days was acquiring the right-of-way," says Melvin. "The Marianna and Blountstown Railroad was in bankruptcy court, and there were confusing titles to the property. It was a real challenge to make it happen."
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy became involved in 1996, purchasing the corridor from bankruptcy court and later selling a section of the corridor to the Florida Department of Transportation who in turn conveyed it to the City of Blountstown. To move the project forward, RTC also developed a concept plan for the trail and made presentations to the city commissioners to advocate for the trail.
In 2005, the developing pathway got a boost when it was designated as part of the Florida Trail, a hiking and backpacking route winding through the state from the Georgia border to the Everglades. The trail stretches more than 1,000 miles and is one of 11 such National Scenic Trails in the country (including the well-known Appalachian Trail). It's maintained and constructed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Trail Association (FTA), whose Panhandle Chapter now helps out with the Blountstown Greenway.
But the real payoff came in 2007 with the gleaming of golden, oversized scissors snipping the trail's ribbon under a bright April sun. Music, food and colorful balloons greeted the droves of people who came to celebrate the trail's completion and explore the novel recreational asset.
Today, the trail continues to be a venue for several races and community events each year, including the popular 5K Catfish Crawl, which the fire department organizes to raise scholarship funds for high school students. It draws about 300 people, a significant amount for rural Florida and a sign of how much the trail has truly been embraced.
On a visit last April, Ron Peterson, chair of FTA's Panhandle Chapter, organized about 20 hikers for a trek down the Blountstown Greenway. Not only did Mayor Tony Shoemake greet them at the railroad museum, he joined them for lunch. This welcoming nature of the city was just one of many reasons that FTA also named Blountstown a Gateway Community for the Florida Trail.
"I love the interactions I have with people on the trail," says Hall. "I get a lot of thumbs up, high fives and fist bumps. It makes it fun."
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