Greenways Could Connect Region
The effort probably would take decades and cost millions of dollars to complete. But promoters say if the trail becomes reality, it will protect the environment and boost economic development. A long regional trail also could attract grants from national foundations to pay for construction, easing local governments' financial burdens.
"This is a real visionary step," said Carl Gullick, executive director of the regional planning group Voices & Choices of the Central Carolinas, which is coordinating the effort. "These aren't pipe dreams."
Over the past decade, several local governments have moved toward building greenways, which are generally smooth, 10-foot-wide trails alongside creeks. They attract pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists and others.
In the past two years, Gastonia has opened its first greenway, a $1.1 million, 2.7- mile path, and Mecklenburg has started buying costly center-city property for its planned 15-mile-long Little Sugar Creek Greenway.
But until recently, the governments had not talked about connecting their systems.
"Every community in our region is working one way or another on greenway and recreation planning," said Gastonia City Manager Ed Munn. "And the streams and rivers and green areas that are here in nature don't really respect political boundaries."
The idea for a regional trail started with a recent meeting between Voices & Choices and a few York County, S.C., staffers, who wanted to see if their open space plan could be coordinated with surrounding counties.
The project is bringing together local leaders who often don't work together.
Stops on the trail
If the trail network is completed, it would link uptown Charlotte, Pineville, Fort Mill, Rock Hill, Lancaster County, Lake Wylie and Gastonia.
Stops could include a planned Museum of Life and the Environment in South Carolina, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, Landsford Canal State Park in Lancaster County, Freedom Park in Charlotte and the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Gaston County.
The proposed Garden Parkway toll road in Gaston County could have a greenway alongside. Leaders on both sides of the Catawba River said they want pedestrians to be able to cross easily.
"It would be very much like the (Arlington) Memorial Bridge in Washington, or some of the other bridges in Europe that people can walk across without feeling like they're going to get run over," said Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Tom Cox. "And I think it ought to be pretty."
The project faces potential hurdles.
Greenways are expensive and take time to plan and build, particularly because they often require governments to buy land.
Also, no formal strategy exists for how each trail would be connected or how to raise the money.
To connect a greenway in Fort Mill with Rock Hill, planners must cross the Catawba River - at a cost of possibly over $1 million. And one large chunk linking northwestern Rock Hill with Gaston County isn't planned at all.
"It certainly makes sense for us to all sit down and see if there's a way to coordinate," said York County Manager Al Greene.
But, he added, each of the trail programs will still have to be planned separately and - if no major fund raising is possible - paid for on the local level.
The idea's advantages
The connections make each individual system more useful and help protect the environment, promoters say. The greenways would run along several creeks and parts of the Catawba River, filtering pollutants before they reach the water.
When people have a way to walk near the water, they also can help scout for illegal dumping and sewage spills, said Karl Froelich, project manager with the Trust for Public Land in Charlotte, which is helping build the Nation Ford Greenway near Fort Mill.
The urban trail network would be one of the country's most extensive, making it a good marketing tool for economic development, officials said.
Gullick and others also say a regional greenway network will attract business to the area. Corporations are increasingly considering a region's quality of life - schools, arts, housing and recreation opportunities - when deciding where to locate, they said.
"If we want to be a creative community, we've got to offer the kind of amenities that the next generation wants," said Mecklenburg County commissioner Ruth Samuelson. "Fifteen miles is great, but if you're biking, 150 miles is even better."