By Emma Castleberry
In August, Conserving Carolina was awarded a $6.4 million grant to support the purchase of a rail corridor known as the TR line. For more than 10 years, Friends of the Ecusta Trail has been working to turn this corridor into the Ecusta Trail, a 19-mile multi-use greenway connecting Hendersonville and Brevard. “The grant funds were awarded to pay up to 80 percent of the purchase price of the corridor,” says Chris Burns, founding board member of Friends of the Ecusta Trail. “This is a huge benefit to the people in Transylvania and Henderson counties. Whether the corridor is used for trail use in the future or reverts back to an active rail line sometime down the road, both offer benefits to our region.”
The Ecusta Trail will travel through Laurel Park, Horse Shoe, Etowah and Pisgah Forest. When complete, the trail will connect with the existing Brevard Bike/Walk Path; the Estatoe path leading into Pisgah Forest; and the Oklawaha Greenway connecting Jackson Park, Patton Park and Berkeley Park in Hendersonville. Like the Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville, SC and the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Ecusta Trail will be railbanked. Railbanking is a voluntary agreement between the railroad company and a trail agency which allows the trail agency to use an abandoned corridor until the railroad company needs it again. The TR Line has been inactive since 2002, and it is highly unlikely the railroad company will reactivate it.
The primary purpose of the TR Line was to provide access to the former Ecusta paper mill in Transylvania County. In 2008, the owners of the plant sold the property to a developer whose masterplan did not include heavy industrial development, and it became clear that the corridor was no longer necessary for rail service. Two years later, the nonprofit corporation Friends of the Ecusta Trail was group has spent the past 10 years educating ourselves, community leaders, citizens and policiticans on the potential of a railbanked corridor, as well as the best practices that other communities have used in railbanking and developing their corridors into greenways,” says Burns.
Many of the group’s members are also local business owners, including Burns, who owns Summit Marketing Group in Hendersonville. “Economically, the trail benefits our region both from a tourism perspective and small business perspective,” he says. The Swamp Rabbit and Virginia Creeper Trails bring hundreds of thousands of users to their regions annually. “Also, the health and recreation benefits of our local residents cannot be overlooked,” says Burns. A 2012 planning study estimated that the annual health impact of the trail would be more than $5 million. Burns says there are also immeasurable benefits to a trail like this. “It can’t be measured in dollars, but if you talk to almost anyone that lives or works along a trail like this, they will tell you that it really builds neighborhoods and community,” he says.
Carrieann Schneider, co-owner of Sideways Farm & Brewery with her husband John, says the proposed Ecusta Trail was part of the couple’s decision-making process while they were evaluating sites for their business. “When we envisioned our farm brewery, we saw a place that locals would gather and become friends, a rural place that people could walk or bike to, and the Ecusta Trail is a large part of furthering that vision,” she says.
For 15 years, the Schneiders lived next to the West Orange Trail, a successful rails-to-trails project in Central Florida. “We witnessed firsthand the ways that a rail-trail can revitalize an area,” Carrieann says. The West Orange Trail generated increased tourism and higher occupancy rates for the nearby historic downtown, which in turn encouraged new retail development. “But it was so much more than just the economic growth,” she says. “It was the change in our community. Neighbors met neighbors. We had group walks with strollers and children. People got outside, exercised and enjoyed nature. After a short amount of time you would begin to recognize other ‘regulars’ on the trail, and it became a friendlier place.”
Schneider says, with the existing local interest in outdoor activity, our region lends itself well to this rails- to-trails project. “The Ecusta Trail will be a great place for families, both local and visiting, to ride bikes without the worry of traffic, or curving hilly roads,” she says. “It would give those in Hendersonville and Brevard access to scenic rural areas, and those of us in the rural areas would only be a bike ride away from town with a lot of friendly faces along the way. The Ecusta Trail would do so much more than just connect Hendersonville and Brevard. It would connect people.”