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Ecusta Trail video touts greenway benefits

Advocates of the proposed Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail trail have launched a campaign to educate the public about the project, using a new video that highlights the project's economic benefits.

"The purpose of (the video) was to show to folks — primarily civic leaders and community leaders and elected officials in Transylvania and Henderson County who have never had chance to experience the Swamp Rabbit and the Virginia Creeper — a little of the experience," said Chris Burns, treasurer of the Friends of Ecusta Trail.
The organization wanted to address concerns of opponents, including the view that the railroad tracks ought to be preserved for future industrial use and fears that a rail-trail would lead to trespassing and crime.
"We have purported for seven years that it's not just about the physical activity and having a nice place to walk," Burns said. "It's really about economic development, not only for tourism but as an industry attraction."
A 2012 report on the proposed 20-mile greenway estimated the project would cost $20 million and return $9.4 million a year in tax revenue, tourism spending, property value increases and health benefits. Newer estimates put construction costs at $9.4 million to $13.4 million and land acquisition at $3.7 million.
The video, which is posted on YouTube, opens with comments from Don Schjeldahl, who guided the corporate search that resulted in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.'s decision to build its East Coast brewery in Mills River.
DonSchjeldahl rgb"In terms of trying to bring (the rail line) back to heavy industrial use, it doesn't really fit very well within my view of the global economy, how North Carolina fits within that economy, the industries and the investments that are taking place," Schjeldahl said. "It's pretty unlikely that you're going to find a company that is of the quality employer, that is going to invest the money to bring that rail back. I've also got lots of clients who have a desire to move into a community that is attractive from a quality of life standpoint. And the Ecusta Trail becomes a very important attraction to this region."


Upstate trail impact ' phenomenal'

The video also features Travelers Rest Mayor Wayne McCall and three people who praise the Virginia Creeper Trail in Southwest Virginia.
When the Swamp Rabbit Trail was proposed, McCall was "a little slow to get on board," he says in the video. "But even before the pavement was put down, just as soon as the crossties and the rails had come up, a wonderful thing happened in our community. We saw people out with their children, moms and dads pushing strollers, people stopping and talking to each other. In short, what had happened is our community was transformed almost immediately. People were neighbors again."
"The economic impact has been nothing short of phenomenal," McCall added. "Buildings have been renovated. There's been about 40 businesses pop along the 266 corridor, which runs along beside the trail. There's no doubt that the Swamp Rabbit Trail has raised the value of real estate in our area. As a matter of fact, there's one subdivision that was completely sold out before it was even finished being built. The proximity to the trail was only about a block and a half."

Locals 'use it all the time'

As for trail safety, the video lets Rachel Fowlkes, who owns a farm along the Virginia Creeper, answer the concern.
"I have friends that thought the Virginia Creeper Trail was a terrible idea, the very idea that strangers would be coming through their property at all hours, and on and on and on," she says. "But they are the first ones now to tell you how much they enjoy it. They're the ones that are out here walking their dogs, riding their bicycles, enjoying the trail every day, where people who come for the weekends may only see it two or three times a year. So really the landowners are the ones who have a jewel. We use it all the time."
The new campaign by the Friends of Ecusta Trail comes just a month after a Kansas company bought 92 miles of track in Western North Carolina from Norfolk Southern. The acquisition includes the 20-mile line from Hendersonville to Pisgah Forest, which has been inactive since 2002.
Watco officials are "continuing to have conversations with us," he said. "They been very very open. When we found out that Watco was going to be the purchaser of the Norfolk Southern line, we were excited because Watco has a very good reputation of being a community partner in the communities they serve, and they have a history of railbanking."
He said it appears the company is "putting a lot of energy into the two active lines" it bought in Western North Carolina but not on the Hendersonville-to-Brevard track. "There's nothing that needs freight between Hendersonville and Brevard," Burns said. "Think about how successful Henderson County has been over the last 10 years in terms of industrial and commercial economic development. Now think about how many of those actual prospects are utilizing rail service."

Viewings are set

The video is likely to reach hundreds of community leaders, business owner, landowners and elected officials in the two counties. The eighteen board members of the Friends of Ecusta Trail all agreed to invite at least three groups apiece to a showing. Two weeks ago, the organization showed it in Brevard.
"At that one we brought up two deputy sheriff's from the Swamp Rabbit Trail," he said. "Both of them have patrolled the Swamp Rabbit since its inception, and the reality of crime on that trail is very different from the perception."
The Friends has also planned a Chamber of Commerce ride on Sept. 19 on the Swamp Rabbit, where they have arranged to meet local officials and business owners. "Then we'll bring them back here, show them the video and answer questions," he said.
Do the trail advocates think the video and the public education campaign is moving the needle?
"Absolutely," he said, "there's no question. Our website continues to get more traffic this month than it got least month. We are having three to five people a week signing up for our email blasts. We're up to about 1,400 on our list right now, and that's growing, literally it's growing every week."