Outdoors Recreation

Outdoors: Negotiations Ongoing for Saluda Grade Rail Trail

Saluda grade through Saluda. Photo by Jim Kelly

By Emma Castleberry

Conserving Carolina is working with two other nonprofits, Upstate Forever and PAL (Play, Advocate, Live Well), to purchase the Saluda Grade rail corridor for a rail trail project. Like the Virginia Creeper Trail in Virginia and the Swamp Rabbit Trail in South Carolina, the 31-mile Saluda Grade Rail Trail would spur economic growth for the communities along its length and provide new outdoor recreation opportunities for visitors and locals. “Similar rail trails have spurred new businesses including restaurants, hotels and bicycle shops,” says Rebekah Robinson, assistant director for programs with Conserving Carolina. “A study conducted by Clemson University last year estimated the direct economic impact of the proposed Saluda Grade Trail at $27 to $30 million and that it would support 282 to 313 jobs.”

The potential trail would run from Inman, SC, to Zirconia, NC, with about 16 miles of the trail in South Carolina. The remaining 15 miles in North Carolina will run through the historic downtowns of Saluda and Tryon. “It would be a game-changer for local residents and improve our quality of life by providing a great outdoor recreation area linking up a number of very historic and wonderful small towns,” says Michael Baughman, senior financial advisor at Parsec Financial in Tryon. “It would encourage more walking, running and bike riding while providing a safer place to do those things. I see a lot of older folks who want to bike, but are afraid to get on the roads. This trail would eliminate that obstacle and help more people get outside and be active on a more regular basis.”

Saluda Grade through Landrum

The most recent South Carolina budget included a $5 million appropriation to support the purchase of the corridor. The three nonprofit partners made an offer to the owner of the rail corridor, Norfolk Southern, and negotiations are ongoing. “As a small mountain community, this project provides us with another outdoor recreation industry that allows us to maintain our natural resources and be economically viable for the foreseeable future without solely relying on limited revenue sources,” says Saluda city manager Steven Orr. “The opportunity this affords entrepreneurs and local businesses to connect with our natural resources is a win-win for the community and those who visit the area to enjoy all of what WNC offers for the outdoor enthusiast.”

Wanda May, a board member with the Tryon Downtown Development Association, says the impact of the trail on the surrounding counties and towns would be almost immeasurable. “Here in Polk County, we bill ourselves as a rural community with special towns, unique experiences and a host of wonderful outdoor recreation opportunities,” says May. “This Rail Trail would exponentially improve the economies of these small towns to the benefit of the entire region.”

There is a rumor that such a trail would increase crime, but Baughman emphasizes this is untrue. “Those myths are not fact-based,” he says. “Numerous studies have proven that rail trails do not make any measurable difference in public safety, and converting an old, abandoned rail-line is a good thing for our public health, our communities and for the environment.”

Visit ConservingCarolina.org/saluda-grade to learn more.

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