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Greenway grant could boost Ecusta Trail

The Ecusta Trail could get a big boost in funding if Henderson County wins a federal grant for greenway construction.

The French Broad River MPO has invited local government bodies to apply for money, which comes from the Federal Highway Administration's Surface Transportation Block Grant program. Total funding available is $26 million. The grant requires a 20 percent local match but the money does not have to come from the county budget; it can come from private donors, nonprofits or some other source.

"It is anticipated this will be a very competive call for projects," county staffers said in a memo.

"We give more money in federal taxes than we receive, especially in the highway side of the ledger," John Mitchell, the county's business and community relations director, told commissioners Wednesday. "As the board is aware and the public also, Conserving Carolina is currently negotiating the acquisition of the Ecusta line." The grant money "could be used to fund all or part of a greenway on that property should Conserving Carolina be successful in those negotiations."

"It will be competitve," county Planning Director Autumn Radcliff said. "We do feel that this could be potentially one of the project that could be funded," and could cover preliminary engineering and some consruction costs. The grant money is for projects in fiscal years 2022-2026.

Mitchell said he thought private funding could provide the match if the county gets the grant.

Commission Chairman Grady Hawkins questioned whether the Ecusta Trail was the top priority. The Ecusta Trail "was really the end of the 30-year (greenway master) plan," he said. "There's a lot of greenways, particularly through Jackson Park, that we've not even got  the money for. I have have some real reservations about what kind of liability that the county is going to have if we're successful in getting those grants. I'm a little concerned about tying it all up in the Ecusta Trail right up front."

Mitchell said commissioners don't need to make that decision today.

"Down the road, when we draw down that funding, this would require us to come back before you with an actual proposal for work to be completed," he said. At that time, the board could drop it or it could find out that private donors were stepping up to fund the 20 percent local match. "There are not tax dollars that are being asked for at this time," Mitchell said. A portion of the match could come from the Tourism Development Authority, which has set aside a portion of the hotel tax to support the Ecusta Trail.

Other commissioners endorsed the motion to apply for the grant, which the board adopted unanimoously.

"Of course we're taking a risk," McCall said. "Everything is a risk. This money is available now. It might not be available down the road."

Commissioner Bill Lapsley said "we would be remiss" not to apply, since federal grants of this size don't come up all that often.