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Ecusta Trail ride reveals entrepreneurs ready to cash in on the crowds

If I’d been at the end rather than halfway through my ride on the 11-mile Henderson County stretch of the Ecusta Trail, I would have definitely sampled the irresistible-sounding, hibiscus-flavored ale at Sideways Farm and Brewery.

“The Roselle hibiscus is considered kind of like the Florida cranberry,” said Carrieann Schneider, co-owner of the brewery just east of the Henderson-Transylvania county line, “so you get that similar fruity tartness.”

If the trail attracts as many locals as she expects, I might have spotted a few acquaintances in a perfect, pastoral setting for turning them into friends.

Maybe then a snack of deep-fried deviled eggs from the visiting Kinfolk food truck would have seemed like a strange and wonderful indulgence.

It sounded less wonderful on Saturday afternoon, however, when I faced a ride back to Hendersonville over rough railroad ballast on an old, aptly described “hardtail” mountain bike.

My trip had been inspired, strangely enough, by an announcement that specifically warned against such excursions on the unfinished trail, at least on the stretch in Transylvania.

Unauthorized “recreational use” of this 8.4-mile section is undermining efforts to extend the trail, Conserving Carolina wrote in a sternly worded press release earlier this month. The organization, which acquired the 19.4-mile trail corridor last year, informed residents that walking or riding on our county’s section is “prohibited at this time.”

But the Henderson portion is open, the announcement also stated.

So I can actually, ride it? I asked Chris Burns, a founding board member of Friends of the Ecusta Trail. No problem, he said. I’d need to avoid the many still-closed railroad bridges, but the “packed ballast” surface was easily passable.

That description turned out to be overly generous, and the bone-jarring gravel and constant detours around bridges turned what I’d planned as an easy 22-mile out-and-back ride into a four-hour chore. Knowing of similar conditions in Transylvania, I can tell you that not only is riding the trail in Brevard illegal, it would be absolutely no fun.

But the point of this ride wasn’t about what the trail is now but about what it could be, what it probably will be — in Henderson and, by extension, Transylvania, all the way to its planned endpoint in Brevard. So if I didn’t experience a flat, pleasant ride through the French Broad River valley, I could see that in the future, when the surface is smooth and paved. I talked to people who were excited about the prospect of such excursions, excited about seeing neighbors along the way, and — speaking to investors who envision not just riders on the trail, but customers — excited about cashing in.

Friends of the Ecusta Trail has commissioned an economic impact study that estimated the trail will generate $42 million in one-time economic investment and, thereafter, $9.4 million in annual benefits.

Teresa McCall, the most steadfast trail opponent on the Transylvania County Commission, complained at a recent meeting that this study was completed in 2012. “That’s 10 years ago,” she said.

She’s right. The study is old and probably badly out of date. Because, based on what I saw and heard on Saturday, and on a previous visit to a similar trail in South Carolina, those estimates are way too low.

I set off from downtown Hendersonville near the site of the Ecusta’s future trailhead. Less than a half-mile down the corridor, I stopped at an empty, Quonset-hut shaped brick building flanked by chain-link fencing and marked with the address, 441 South Whitted Street.

A group of local couples have brought this and other nearby historic buildings, former sites of rail-dependent industrial operations such as a hosiery mill and a box-cutting plant, said one of the owners, Dale Salvaggio-Bradshaw.

They will soon begin transforming it into Lennox Station, she said, the future home of “a brewery, of course,” a neighborhood grocery, a deli and, probably, a restaurant. It will provide enough parking to serve as a trailhead for walkers and cyclists, as a hub for customers to launch trips and linger afterwards.

Did plans for the trail have a role in encouraging this investment?

Yes, obviously, she said. “It’s the whole reason we’re doing this.”

After another mile on the trail and at least one more mile on a meandering detour past yards busting with azaleas, I reached the town of Laurel Park. The only businesses I saw from the trail were a wine shop and convenience store.

It won’t be that way for long, said town Commissioner George Banta.

A coming redesign of nearby U.S. 64 will include roundabouts and “traffic calming devices that will make it much more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly,” Banta said. These will help connect the town’s main business district, north of the highway, to the trail, which is to its south.

Though nobody can know exactly how this will all fit together until the ongoing trail design is completed later this year, the town is expecting big benefits, Banta said. “I think everybody on the Henderson County side is extremely supportive and anxious for this trail to be developed.”

That includes people who live and own property next to the trail, the group that has been most opposed to building the Ecusta in Transylvania.


Scott Bogin was one of precisely three trail users I encountered all this balmy spring afternoon, suggesting that concerns of unauthorized trips might be slightly overblown.

Bogin, whose 2.25-acre property will be bisected by the trail, regularly walks on the old rail bed with his dog, Ruby, he said. He looks forward to being able to jump on his bike to ride to Hendersonville and sounded puzzled when he heard about the common argument from landowners in Transylvania, that the acquisition of the corridor for the trail amounts to a land grab.

Pointing out that it was snapped up for use as a railroad more than a century ago, he said, “that’s bull----.”

Without repeating previous reporting about “reverter clauses” and “railbanking” I can tell you that this general opinion is shared by legal experts. And landowners who do have a claim to the right of way — like such owners all over the country — will likely be compensated by the federal government.

So, besides being a “great thing for Henderson County,” the trail might hold a financial benefit for Bogin’s family, he said. “We’re going to try to get paid for it. There’s no reason we shouldn’t.”

Dean Cloer, owner of the Elijah Mountain Gem Mine on U.S. 64 a few hundred yards west of Bogin’s property, is expecting a much bigger payoff.

His 14-year-old business is already packed with activities, including peacock-viewing and goat-petting, as well as merchandise ranging from boulder-sized geodes to fur pelts. Construction on the first 5.3 miles of the trail, from Hendersonville to Horseshoe, is expected to begin next year, and Cloer is preparing to capitalize, packing in more stuff to do on the four acres he owns to the rear of the mine and next to the trail.

He rattled off so many improvements it was hard to keep track of what he is working on now and what he plans for the future, but the attractions will eventually include bike rentals, an aviary, a relocated goat enclosure, a children’s obstacle course, a stage for musical acts and parking to accommodate what he expects will be big crowds of trail users

“We have really done a whole lot more than we really ever would have just to get ready for that demographic that will be coming through,” he said.

Past the gem mine, the land around the trail opens up, offering views of pastures, sod farms and distant mountain ranges. And for all my complaining about this ride, there were plenty of reminders that I was lucky to be outside on a spring day — blooming redbuds and dogwoods, and colorful displays of red maple spinners doing for the scenery what hibiscus reportedly does for beer, adding subtle cranberry highlights.

Further along, the trail is flanked by gently flowing stretches of the French Broad, and at one point crosses the river on a trestle hundreds of feet long. Nobody who remembers the terrifying scene from Stand by Me would dare to venture out on it now, but it’s sure to be a highlight once the trail is finished.

I passed another sign of investment, the ongoing remodeling of a restaurant in Horseshoe, and then the potential for much more in Etowah. I didn’t see a single good place to stop for a snack but did see empty or underused buildings in which I could picture future bike shops, coffee shops, sandwich shops and since we apparently can apparently never have enough breweries, maybe one of those, too.

Shortly after the turnaround at the county line, I came to Sideways, which, besides brewing beer, grows flowers and herbs, some of them used in crafting an ever-changing selection of ales, lagers and IPAs. 

Considering this operation is so close to Tranyslvania, I was surprised I didn’t know about it. I shouldn’t have been, said Schneider, who opened the business four years ago with family members. Most of their customers are still tourists rather than locals, she said, and she expects the trail to increase the visibility of her business and the volume of its customers. But she is just as excited about how it will build community.

She’s seen it happen, she said, after a multi-use trail was completed in her former hometown of Winter Garden, Fla., near Orlando.

“There were people in Florida who were against it and built privacy fences, and then, two years later, they were tearing down fences or putting in gates, and they realized it was meant for locals, for people to walk and teach their grandkids to ride bikes,” she said.

“It really changed the community and brought the community together.”

She invested in the business partly because she’s sure the same will happen here, which is looking more and more certain all the time. Besides the funds to build the first miles of the Ecusta, the project recently secured $7.5 million from the state, and the city of Brevard has applied for a federal grant that could pay for most of its construction in Transylvania.

Still, it could be awhile, and I won’t wait that long to return to Sideways. Discovering it made me feel like a kid finding a gem at Elijah Mountain, and I want to go back soon. But next time I’ll drive.

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Dan DeWitt's Brevard NewsBeat covers news and politics in Transylvania County.