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  • Rob Glover

Carolina Thread Trail & Gaston County—Are greenways the key to the next phase of prosperity?

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There could be a day, in the not too terribly distant future, when hundreds of miles of greenways weave their way through Gaston County.

That’s due to an increasing trend by Gaston’s city planners to make greenways a prominent feature in their towns’ futures.

City Park's Carolina Thread Trail access in Bessemer City - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

In fact, Jane Love, Senior Transportation Planner for the Gaston, Cleveland, Lincoln, Metropolitan Planning Organization (GCLMPO) did some digging—her position offers a birds eye view of local transportation plans. She found, in total, Gaston’s 13 cities mention around 300 miles of total potential multi-use paths in their municipal plans. And with new pedestrian and bike plans in the works for towns like Gastonia, Dallas, and Bessemer City, that number could increase.

Why the growing momentum for greenways in Gaston County?

Because greenways aren’t just a place for a pleasant afternoon stroll; they’ve also emerged as a versatile tool to help city planners, like those in Mount Holly, maximize and manage the opportunities headed for Gaston County.

Greenways encourage the right growth for Gaston County

Fueled by Charlotte’s western growth and grounded in Gaston’s historic towns, there’s a new wave of prosperity headed for our county. Greenways will be an effective draw for both developers and companies considering expansion in Gaston.

As part of her regular duties, Love reviews residential development projects in Gastonia. There’s something she’s noticed about many of them. “Developers want to provide greenways,” she says. “They might be attracted to an area specifically because it has an existing network of [them].”

Catawba Riverfront Greenway - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Her observations are understandable. There are dozens of studies that show homes near a greenway tend to gain more value than those that aren’t. A 2009 survey from San Antonio, for example, estimates that homes along a greenway sold for a 5% premium over similar homes further away.

Greenways attract more developers to Gaston County which means a greater choice in housing. Meanwhile, existing homeowners enjoy an increase in their property value.

Looking in Gastonia, that could be significant as the Avon and Catawba Creek Greenway will see extensions soon, bringing the trail closer to several neighborhoods.

(Gastonia’s Avon and Catawba Creek Greenways as shown on the Carolina Thread Trail Map. The trail is currently 2.4 miles. An additional 0.33 miles will soon connect Lineberger park to 2nd avenue.)

The Avon and Catawba Creek greenway is part of the Carolina Thread Trail, a growing network of greenways spanning 15 Carolina counties. Bret Baronak is the Director of the Carolina Thread Trail organization. Baronak has watched as multi-use trails have shifted from an afterthought to a critical component of new housing developments.

“As people move into new communities, they’re demanding that trails be a part of it,” he says. “Developers are seeing the incredible value add that greenways offer.”

An increase in home values is just the icing on the cake of economic benefits a greenway can deliver. Companies that look to move or expand see greenways as a sign that cities are investing in their residents’ future.

Mount Holly Linear Trail - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Greg Beal, Mount Holly’s Director of Planning and Development, notes that greenways have become an important amenity when they court a business. “Competition for advanced manufacturing jobs is fierce,” he says. “Companies always ask what we’re doing to increase quality of life. We have conversations with them and they really like what Mount Holly is doing with greenways.”

Greenways and economic development go hand in hand. Greensboro’s Downtown Greenway has generated over $500 million in completed and planned investment. They expect more businesses to infill previously unused property, bringing jobs to a part of town that was mostly forgotten.

While more jobs and more choices in housing make a strong case for greenways, it only matters if everyone can share in the benefit.

Greenways give more people greater access to all places

Prosperity can’t just be for some; everyone should have the opportunity to benefit from it. Greenways break through transportation obstacles allowing more people to safely access work, education, and recreation.

It’s 10 am on Sunday morning and cars nearly fill a gravel lot at the Mountain Island Lake Trail in Mount Holly. There’s no special event. It’s just one of those Carolina bluebird days where the late morning sun has knocked the edge off of winter’s chill.

Mountain Island Thread Trail - Evey McFadden

Some people came to fish—bass and catfish congregate near the base of the Mountain Island Dam. A few brought their kids to climb and swing on the play structure. Most came to bike, hike, and run the wide, gravel greenway and the tributaries of narrow single-track trails that crisscross it.

The park is already an impressive amenity for Mount Holly, drawing people from neighboring communities and providing residents a place to gather and play. But it’s really just one segment of a linear puzzle the town is quietly piecing together.

Tuckaseegee Park - Randy Rivera, Gaston Outside

Beal says there are 10 to 12 miles of greenway in what they’ve called the Catawba Outdoor Corridor plan, which will also be a part of the Carolina Thread Trail.

“Mount Holly and the Carolina Thread Trail have worked together for 14 years, so we’ve kind of grown up together where greenways are concerned,” Beal says. “The Carolina Thread Trail and their partners deserve a lot of credit for thinking regionally while also working with individual communities on issues that may be peculiar to that town.”

Through that partnership, about 4.5 miles of the corridor are already complete, including a beautiful segment from Tuckaseege Park to the Municipal Complex. Soon, another half-mile connector will open that extends up to River Park.

(Mount Holly’s Catawba Riverfront Greenway as seen on the Carolina Thread Trail Map. When the new half-mile segment opens north of Charlotte Avenue, the greenway will connect Tuckaseege park, downtown Mount Holly, and River Street Park.)

Once complete, the greenway will stretch from the dam along the Catawba River all the way to Interstate 85 and include connections into downtown Mount Holly.

That means you’ll be able hop on the greenway from any number of neighborhoods, and enjoy serene, Catawba River views, then head up to Mountain Island lake, to the YMCA, to Tailrace Marina, to a half dozen parks, and then to Catawba Coffee, Jack Beagles, or The Summit Beer Shop for a beverage and a snack.

Anna Naphtali, Gaston Outside

For some, that describes a fun day out. For many—like those without a car or don’t drive—it means safe access to shopping, services, and places of work. That’s important when you consider that 9% of American households don’t own a car and the need for focus on vehicular safety as it pertains to children.

But even among those who can drive, many would prefer a different way to get around. According to a Gallup poll, 16% of people rarely or never drive and 22% say they don’t like driving. Additionally, the percentage of adults with a driver's license has decreased across all age groups in the last couple of decades.

How people commute also has a significant effect on their health. Residents who live in communities with a high Walk Score—an algorithm that estimates how easy it is to get around on foot—weigh six to 10 pounds less than those who live in disconnected neighborhoods.

Sidewalks help some, but they’re often hemmed in by cul-de-sac communities. Greenways connect those siloed neighborhoods. Even better, they do it without adding through-traffic to them. Residents can enjoy living on a quiet street and still have pedestrian access to the greater community.

Stowe Park, Downtown Belmont - Camille Renner, Gaston Outside

“Greenways are an equitable component to a community,” the CTT’s Baronak explains. “They’re free to use and it doesn’t matter if you’re 8 or 80, you can take advantage of a local greenway.”

Closer to home, the call for greenways is loud and clear. “Whenever a town does a public survey, something that always comes out is ‘we want more greenways’,” Love says.

And once those greenways are in place, it becomes about more than just connecting physical locations.

“These are things that bring people together, so they feel part of a community,” Love says. “They provide community identity and pride.”

Generating more opportunities for more people within each Gaston city is important. When you can connect all of those cities together, you have something really special.

Greenways connect Gaston’s idyllic towns

There’s really no other county in the state with such a diverse collection of authentic, historic towns and communities. A network of greenways between them, and across the Catawba, unifies our county, tells a bigger tourism story, and connects us with new developments in Charlotte.

It won’t be long before you can have a coffee at Floyd and Blackie’s in Cramerton, hop on a greenway and bike south all the way to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden or north for lunch at Terra Mia in McAdenville and continue on to downtown Lowell.

Storefronts in Downtown Lowell - Randy Rivera, Gaston Outside

That’s thanks to an impressive 19-mile section of the Carolina Thread Trail taking shape along the South Fork River—which itself is already a CTT blueway (the water version of a greenway).

In all, Baronak says the entire corridor could be completed within five years, thanks to the tremendous group effort behind it. The CTT has provided a funding grant, planning support, and coordination for the new trail. But Baronak says the local municipalities deserve a lot of credit. The towns of Cramerton, Lowell, and McAdenville, as well as the County, have all come together to make it happen.

“Gaston is one of the most active of all the 15 Thread Trail Counties,” Baronak says. “Leadership in both the cities and county prove that they understand how important outdoor recreation and alternative means of transportation are.”

(The network of greenways in Cramerton as seen on the Carolina Thread Trail Map. Eventually, a new segment of trail will connect the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in the South to Cramerton, McAdenville, and Lowell.)

Biking, walking, fishing, and paddling, there are few communities in the area that offer this variety of outdoor experiences directly adjacent to town centers. Connecting them all with greenways creates a strong draw for tourism.

You can look to the Swamp Rabbit Trail that runs between the South Carolina towns of Greenville and Travelers Rest for an example. Over 500,000 people use the 22-mile trail annually, a quarter of which are tourists. Businesses near the SRT saw a 30 to 85% increase in revenue after it opened.

Greenville County Councilman Joe Dill noted the trail’s effect on Travelers

Rest in an interview for the Greenville News. “It’s changed the whole complexion of the community, getting some high end restaurants, getting some gift shops and eateries,” Dill is quoted saying in the article. “A lot of things are coming to Travelers Rest that it’s been years since we had those kinds of things in our community.”

Tourism is lucrative because it doesn’t require as much infrastructure as residential or commercial development. Basically, visitors come to Gaston, leave their money, and go home.

Central Drug in Downtown Bessemer City - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Gaston can harness that same visitation gravity as our amenities and idyllic downtowns are brought together into a larger experience.

Of course, it doesn’t have to stop at county borders. Love says there will likely be a pedestrian crossing included in the new Wilkinson Boulevard bridge. There’s also been ideas floated for a pedestrian-only bridge from Mount Holly to near the U.S. National White Water Center (USNWC).

A greenway that fords the Catawba River allows Gaston to tap into the popularity of the USNWC and connects our towns to the huge developments planned at the River District and at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

Catawba River Thread Trail - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

Picture USNWC visitors and residents of the River District pedaling across the Catawba for lunch in Mount Holly, Belmont, or Cramerton or the reverse for Gaston residents.

“There are so many unique small towns working together in Gaston,” says Beal. “Image if you could walk or bike to Cramerton, Lowell, Mount Holly, etc.”

Building greenways is a team sport

There are currently about two dozen miles of greenway in Gaston County and roughly another dozen miles in various stages of planning and construction. Building more miles isn’t as easy as clearing a path and laying down gravel or asphalt.

There are land acquisition considerations, environmental studies, and cost studies, all before a shovel hits the dirt. But the biggest hurdle, says both Beal and Love, is funding.

Luckily for all of us in Gaston, there are many talented teams working to get more projects funded and more shovels into the dirt.

In Mount Holly, for example, Beal credits his team with doing work that’s saved tens of thousands of dollars on recent greenway projects. They’ve also been proactive at getting projects ready, so when funding becomes available they can act quickly.

Mountain Island Thread Trail - Evey McFadden, Gaston Outside

There are economic development and planning groups like Mount Holly’s in every Gaston municipality. They deserve a ton of credit and thanks for continuing the greenway momentum.

So does the Carolina Thread Trail. They have a huge mission of helping those 15 Carolina counties write plans, find funding, and foster collaboration for greenway projects. Most of the greenways in Gaston County are part of the Carolina Thread Trail System.

Private groups have made a huge impact as well. Friends of the Greenway are big advocates for Mount Holly’s trail system and the Tarheel Trailblazers have built and maintained miles of mountain biking trails here. While technically not greenways, those single-track paths add another recreational dimension to the county.

And, of course, there’s Jane Love and the team at the GCLMPO. They help communities plan for all modes of transportation and navigate state-level funding procedures.

If you’d like to help bring more greenways to your community, let your local officials know. Everything about greenways is grass roots, and your voice is an important part of building that momentum.

And if you’d like to get out and explore Gaston’s greenways, start here with the Carolina Thread Trails Interactive Map for Gaston County. It lists trailhead locations, distances, and surface types. If nothing else, take some time and get out there. These beautiful greenways are yours for the taking.

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