Rails-to-Trails Project Spurs Local Economy

Tweetsie Trail to Link Johnson City and Elizabethton, Tenn.

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Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2015 4:00 pm

When a community looks for economic and community development opportunities, the answer often lies in their own history.

Many communities are using recreational opportunities as major placemaking initiatives and a focus on history and natural heritage has been at the forefront of those decisions.

With a vision to use an abandoned resource to create a cultural link to their past, the cities of Johnson City and Elizabethton, Tenn., partnered to convert a ten-mile stretch of abandoned railway to a greenway to link their communities in a new way.

The two municipalities, with the help of several groups of stakeholders, successfully created new recreational opportunities, spurred economic development, and preserved a key to the area’s rich cultural heritage born around the railroad industry.

The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ET & WNC) Railroad originally commissioned the narrow gauge railway in 1868 connecting Johnson’s Depot, modern day Johnson City, to the iron ore mine in Cranberry, N.C. The section of the railroad, later recognized as the Tweetsie Railroad, was completed in 1888, and was part of the final link to connect Memphis to the Eastern Seaboard, according to a Johnson City Press article. The railroad provided ample access to Elizabethton and Johnson City, as well as to the valleys of the Watauga and Doe Rivers.

The railroad was known as the “driving force for the growth of the town,” and Johnson City was commonly referred to as “the Gateway to the Land of Sky,” because of the influx of tourism and business. However, the Tweetsie Railroad closed to mining traffic, but because it was also constructed with a standard line - meaning both narrow and regular gauge - the rail-line transitioned to passenger rail, providing a means of daily transportation service between the two towns. It continued operation until 2003 and closed as a result of change in ownership and declining business in Elizabethton.

Beginning in 2005, the Johnson City Board of Commissioners led the charge to purchase a section of the former Tweetsie railroad to establish the first and only rail-trail, or conversion of a former rail-line to a low-impact pedestrian trail, in Tennessee. The first section of the rail-trail, 4.5 miles, is part of a major redevelopment effort that was completed without the assistance of state or federal funding. Rather, a dedicated task force – the Tweetsie Trail Task Force – involved several groups including Johnson City, Elizabethton, and Carter County residents, and raised more than $475,000 for the construction of the first section of trail. In addition to the money that was raised, numerous stakeholders donated materials including pavers, signage, used rail ties, and assisted with construction.

The 10-mile Tweetsie Trail is expected to be completed in 2015 or 2016, and will run from Stateline Road in Elizabethton to Alabama Street in Johnson City. Johnson City Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin stated that “the Johnson City Commission and management are committed to utilizing all tools at our disposal to enhance the livability of our city and to enhance the educational, recreational, business, employment and quality of life opportunities for our citizens.”

A ribbon cutting ceremony on August 30 celebrated the inaugural Tweetsie Trail Trek, allowing cyclists, pedestrians, and each of the mayors to celebrate their efforts on the first section of trail.

“The passionate and committed grassroots effort that brought the Tweetise Trail to fruition speaks volumes about the benefits that rail-trails bring to communities like Johnson City,” said Vice President of Trail Development for the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy Liz Thorstensen. “Particularly in small and medium-sized cities, providing a safe, convenient and enjoyable place to walk and bike is proven to have a tangible and significant impact on the community. Our study of these impacts frequently reveals an increase in commercial activity near the trail, a boost in quality of life and real estate values, and an increase in regular physical activity.”

In the next couple of years the two cities will be reconnected by the complete Tweetsie Trail. However, after almost 12 years of abandonment, there has already been a resurgence of economic development from recreational opportunities, events, and interest from businesses along the trail. In November, Trek Bicycles, a bicycle manufacturer and retailer, announced it will open a concept store in downtown Johnson City near the Tweetsie Trail. Store owner and Trek employee for 19 years Chad Wolfe viewed the location to the Tweetsie Trail as a major benefit to the concept store. He is focusing on attracting not only local cyclists and runners, but also outdoor enthusiasts from North Carolina and Virginia.

According to the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, economic development opportunities from other rails-to-trails projects in the nation have had strong impacts on the local community and surrounding environs. “These are all outcomes that have quantifiable economic and environmental returns,” said Sorensen. “Rail-trail projects like the Tweetsie Trail are proven to be very savvy and far-sighted investments that repay their cost many times over.”

Like most community visions, it takes a team of dedicated stakeholders to support ideas, profess interest, and get their own hands dirty to make a project come to reality. What Elizabethton and Johnson City accomplished, eventually built a scenic pedestrian highway that will complement the area’s rich history for years to come. In addition to land-reuse projects, visitors and residents will be able to find alternative ways to commute to work or school, and find more reasons to go outside to see the mountains of East Tennessee. Whether that means retaining business along the trail, or creating a connector that will promote healthy lifestyles, a rail-trail like the Tweetsie in any community can have similar impacts.

Tom Doherty is an environmental specialist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation - Office of Sustainable Practices.

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