Connecting Communities at the NC Trails Workshop

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The North Carolina State Parks service, The NC Recreation Resources Service and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources came together to host the first NC trails workshop this past week. Held in the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the theme of this year’s conference was ‘connecting communities’ – bringing together private planners with recreation professionals, volunteers, and advocacy groups to discuss how trails bring people and municipalities closer, and how they can do more of that.

Starting with information about permitting and approvals, David Lee (environmental assistance coordinator at NC DENR) talked about some of the formal logistics and permitting steps development projects go through and its relationship with trail development. Carol Tingley, Acting Director of NC Division of Parks & Recreation, then took over to talk about the available grants and funding for trail development through existing state programs. Though she rustled up the audience a little bit with the very limited current funding for trails and greenways, Kate Dixon, Executive Director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea trail, Wake County’s Open Space Manager Chris Snow, and Karl Froelich, Director of the Carolina Thread Trail presented the progress of their projects. Even with limited funding, a lot of greenway projects have been very resourceful and have made some noticeable accomplishments with their large-scale trail visions.

Lauren Blackburn also helped convey a more positive picture with her Walk Bike North Carolina study supporting many of the arguments and information presented throughout these two days.  Chuck Flink, President of Greenways Incorporated (also, Chair of the national East Coast Greenway Advisory Board) presented impressive ideas and statistics and framing methods we can take to get greenways noticed and championed.

Being two days of power points, panels, and Q&A, I can’t share all the dozen-pages of notes I scratched down. Fortunately, the NC RRS has taken up the task of compiling a digital resources library (worth a browse to get an idea of the number of smart-thinkers and power players that have adopted this trail-building mission).

Everything from leveraging resources to accommodating all users (including the equestrian community); collaborative planning with communities and decision makers; using GIS, mapping, and other information systems to build and disseminate data; as well as the the role trails have in redeveloping a local sense of place that our new technologies have dismantled. And as we would expect, a lot of time was spent discussing the lack of trail funding, why that is and how it’s changing. The gist: we want money, we need money, eventually we’re going to get some more money. . . There is more demand for trail dollars than there are dollars, but as we remain competitive in our grant applications and persistent in our partnership efforts, the infrastructure will come to be built eventually.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe East Coast Greenway was also one of three organizations that was given the chance to do a little tabling (Photo: NC State Parks)

An added bonus to the workshop,  I had the opportunity to sit at a round table with the North Carolina Trails Coalition. I listened in while they discussed the importance of trail planning for North Carolina, where it stands on the State’s agenda, and how we can increase agency support for funding and development. Knowing how important trails are to the economy, it’s been a unique challenge to translate that into greenway investment and on-the-ground dollars. Yet the stakeholders took the time out of their week because they know by installing greenway infrastructure and encouraging active lifestyle and outdoor recreation, local communities can boost their economy through tourism and innovation.

Like the entire audience learned throughout the workshop, funding is falling short and barriers are stacked high. Policy is still focused on last-generation infrastructure development and has been slow to catch up. Meanwhile, political representation remains minimal because we’re all off planning, constructing, or using our trails. But from this meeting it looks like there is a good framework in place for us to create the collaborative body necessary to relay the economic significance and social benefits  to interweaving trails throughout the State.

There is a lot of good prospect and I was happy to see how many different people were so interested in greenways. Departing from the workshop with more confidence in the future of trails, but nettled by the shortfall of funding, I also recalled lessons from this past year of planning news: Fortunately, with Transportation Oriented Development (TOD) on the rise, the car culture is trending downward , and a large demographic headed for retirement, it looks like more people will soon agree a good place for dollars are greenways. Not too long now.