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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Ecusta Trail is the next big economy booster

A $6.4 million grant to help acquire the Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail line for the Ecusta Trail is the best economic development news in a long time.

Eight years ago, we got the news that Henderson County had won the industrial recruiting sweepstakes when Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. announced that it was locating its East Coast plant in Mills River. We knew the nation’s second largest craft beer maker would produce the suds. We had no idea just how big a generator it would be of tourism dollars.
The Ecusta Trail is similar to that, even if it won’t create many direct jobs. At this point, there’s little reason to doubt that the 19-mile greenway is moving from a proposal that many thousands of people would like to a reality.
Yes, many pieces have to fall in place, government, civic and corporate bodies have to come together and processes have to be completed. An appraisal of the rail line, which passes through residential, commercial and industrial land and cornfields and cow pastures, is the first next step. Negotiations with Watco, the Kansas-based shortline freight company that operates trains in Western North Carolina as Blue Ridge Southern Railroad, have been happening quietly behind the scenes. Conserving Carolina, the grant applicant, has the experience and track record to continue those talks and bring a sale to a close.
The list of people and organizations that have worked both publicly and behind the scenes is long and worth a callout. Besides every town in Henderson County, supporters include the Blue Ridge Bicycle Club, Conserving Carolina, Friends of the Oklawaha Trail, Friends of the Ecusta Trail, the old Apple Country Greenway Commission, Advent Health, Pardee UNC Health Care, Partnership for Health, Obesity Action Team, Henderson County public schools, N.C. 280 Corridor Stakeholders, Henderson County Planning Board, Henderson County Transportation Advisory Committee, Henderson County Recreation Advisory Committee and the Tourism Development Authority. The grant would not have happened if the Henderson County Board of Commissioners had not ordered a greenway master plan in 2017 and adopted the master plan last April 1. Funders of bike-ped infrastructure just do not award grants to local communities that do not have a comprehensive plan emphasizing connectivity and other factors.
State Rep. Chuck McGrady, a founding member of the Friends of the Ecusta Trail, had told NCDOT officials that if any greenway acquisition money became available, Henderson County would like to apply. He was surprised to get a call recently that the state had indeed found a pot of money that the state Transportation Board could appropriate. People like McGrady and Chris Burns, another founding member of the Ecusta Trail movement and chair of the Greenway Master Plan Committee, have been impressively disciplined and patient. Watco said it needed five years to decide what to do with the Hendersonville-Brevard corridor. Five years passed. The Friends of the Ecusta Trail made the ask.
Aside from Sierra Nevada, this story also brings to mind the model of cooperation, negotiation and give-and-take that resulted in the Health Sciences building and Pardee Cancer Center. That success involved Henderson County, Hendersonville, Wingate University, BRCC and Pardee Hospital. The same can-do spirit, leavened by patience, can produce the biggest tourism and economic development boon since 2012.