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Brevard agrees to take lead on Ecusta Trail construction

BREVARD — The push to build the Ecusta Trail continued to gather momentum on Monday, when the Brevard City Council voted to take a lead role in applying for public grants and overseeing design and construction for the stretch of the path in Transylvania County.

This will give the project in Transylvania the kind of government support that has proven vital for its recent progress in Henderson County, said Chris Burns, a board member of Friends of the Ecusta Trail, which he helped found in 2009.

“This was HUGE as a leap forward for the trail in Transylvania,” he wrote in an email after Monday’s meeting, adding that the decision had lifted a “cloud” over the project in Transylvania — the “the lack of a construction partner.”

The 19.4-mile trail is planned for an abandoned rail bed linking Hendersonville and Brevard, and construction on the first phase in Henderson is expected to begin next year.

A big reason Brevard’s backing is essential: Local governments are best positioned to apply for and receive the state and federal grants expected to cover most of the trail’s estimated $31 million construction cost.

The council started working on this Monday, voting to apply for a $21.1 million federal grant that would pay most of the $12.8 million needed to build the Ecusta Trail in Transylvania and help fund two city projects — the ongoing multi-use Estatoe Trail and an updated, cycling- and walking-friendly downtown master plan that was also approved on Monday.

Because the Ecusta Trail will run mostly through unincorporated land in Transylvania, Council member Geraldine Dinkins asked “where is the county in this?”

City Manager Jim Fatland responded that it had “declined to take the lead.”

Several Transylvania County Commissioners have previously said they do not oppose the trail but also don’t favor committing money to the project. The city’s resolution to approve the application for the federal Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant included a commitment to provide money for the needed 20 percent local match.

Burns and a representative of Conserving Carolina, the nonprofit that is buying the old rail bed, pledged to help raise local contributions from private donations as well as grants from non-governmental foundations. Mayor Pro Tem Mac Morrow said he expected that grants and local donations would cover much of the 20 percent match the city committed to spend.

Both Fatland and County Administrator Jaime Laughter said county staff had been involved in recent discussions about the trail. They also said the city’s experience overseeing trail construction left it better suited than the county to oversee the project in Transylvania.

The county “does not routinely build bike and pedestrian facilities,” Laughter wrote in an email after the meeting.

It was also a matter of seizing an opportunity, Burns said after the meeting.

After several meetings with county leaders about backing the project, he said, “I think they were warming to the idea.” But when he learned the city planned to apply for the RAISE grant, “the timing was perfect to see if (the city) wanted to step up and partner,” he said.

In 2019, Conserving Carolina was awarded a $6.4 million federal Transportation Alternatives Program grant to help buy the former rail bed, and last year it entered a contract with Blue Ridge Southern Railroad to purchase the corridor for $7.8 million.

As examples of how local governments can propel such projects, Henderson County has approved a bridge loan to facilitate this purchase, which is expected to close in July, and last year secured about $5.1 million in grants to build 5.9 miles of the trail, Burns said.

“Henderson County agreed to take the lead role in construction and, as a result, trail construction will begin there early next year,” Burns wrote.

Similar trails have been a boon to communities such as Greenville, South Carolina, home of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which has “resulted in more than $100 million in private-sector investment,” according to Friends’ documents provided to the city. In Transylvania, the Ecusta Trail is expected to bring an additional $2.3 million in annual tourism spending, boosting both occupancy tax and sales tax revenue.

The city is in a good position to win the RAISE grant, Fatland said, because it has applied for it several times previously and because of strong support for the projects, including from local lawmakers and Brevard’s Blue Zones Project, which has named the Ecusta as a “marque” initiative to promote health and well-being.

Dinkins asked if the county will also provide a letter of support.

That remains to be seen, wrote Laughter. Officially backing the project or later helping with trail maintenance, which Fatland suggested was a possibility, “would be up for the commissioners to consider,” Laughter wrote. “There are not currently budgeted funds for that purpose and there has not been any discussion with the city on either of those” issues.

City council members, on the other hand, were eager to take the lead.

“The city had the courage to step up to the plate,” said Council member Maureen Copelof. “We have supported the trail for years and now we’re putting action behind that support.”

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Dan DeWitt's BrevardNewsBeat provides in-depth coverage of local politics, the environment and land-use.