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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Building momentum for greenways

When the story is written of tourism in Henderson County in the 21st century, the period we’re in now will stand out as crucial.

The news we’re hearing from the Ecusta Trail and other greenways in Hendersonville and beyond is a huge boost for fitness, bicycle travel, walking and recreation-based tourism. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of what’s happened to advance the Hendersonville-to-Brevard rail-to-trail greenway in a year’s time.
On Aug. 8, 2019, the state Board of Transportation voted to allocate $6.4 million for the purchase of the rail line from Watco Companies, the Kansas-based short-line operator that bought the idle tracks from Southern Railway. Last Thursday, the French Broad MPO voted unanimously to grant $7 million in construction money for greenways in Henderson County — $5 million for the Ecusta Trail and $2 million for the Clear Creek Greenway in Hendersonville.
The MPO’s action came as officials with Conserving Carolina, the Hendersonville-based land conservancy, edged closer to consummating the purchase of the tracks from Watco, a step that obviously is key.
The money from the MPO would cover the first three phases of the Ecusta Trail, from Hendersonville to Horse Shoe. Beyond that is the most expensive segment, Horse Shoe to Etowah, which would involve either a major repair of the train trestle over the French Broad River or a new bike-pedestrian bridge.
As the Hendersonville Lightning reported on Aug. 20, the effort pushing the greenway project is made up of a large and complicated partnership involving state legislators, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, the Tourism Development Authority, the Hendersonville City Council, the Laurel Park Town Council, Conserving Carolina, the Friends of Ecusta Trail and more. This is the most successful partnership across jurisdictional lines since the five-party agreement that led to the construction of the Pardee Cancer Center and Health Sciences Center, which provides classroom and lab space for Blue Ridge Community College and Wingate University, on the Pardee campus.
At last week’s meeting of the French Broad MPO, the agency’s director, Tristan Winkler, noted that the Ecusta Trail phases 1-3 — at 6 miles long — would become the area’s longest continuous trail. But even that understates the length of easily connectable greenway. It would be a simple matter to connect the south end of the Oklawaha Greenway at Jackson Park to the Ecusta trailhead at Busy Bend on Kanuga. Fourth Avenue is already the city’s east-west bicycle-designated roadway. Cut south on Main or Washington and — voila! — the two greenways are connected. (That’s why we were delighted to see City Manager John Connet recommend that the City Council amend the upcoming South Main Street roundabout design contract to add Ecusta Trail access (plus gateway features and a “postage stamp park”) to the plans. (The new roundabout will displace the Southside Gateway Park.)
At that last week’s MPO meeting, Winkler also unveiled the 150-mile Hellbender Trail, a network of greenways across five counties that would include the Oklawaha Greenway and the Ecusta Trail. Although that’s a very long-range vision, the pieces are coming together. People who advocate for a bicycling and pedestrian greenways in the region have been talking about the Ecusta Trail ever since the last freight train rumbled down the tracks in 2002. This week we got the splendid news that we’re on the way to seeing the dream become reality.