Pre-heating the oven for a 360-mile pie in the sky

by Herb Hiller

The heritage of enslaved West Africans, who for 300 years drove the economy of the American South, may now help drive the building of the East Coast Greenway through portions of four southern states.

That wouldn’t happen alone.

Also contributing would be a connect-the-dots mix of a national scenic byway already in place, and in prospect a university ecotourism program and the expanding touring schedule of Bike Florida.

Completion of the Greenway would accelerate between Wilmington, North Carolina, and St. Augustine, Florida, a route roughly 360 miles long that would add a full 12 percent to our national trail.

Driving this prospect are the Congressionally-designated Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and an overture by Florida State Senator Tony Hill, whose Senate District 1 encompasses gerrymanders inland through northeast Florida between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. The senator’s idea is for an interpretive Gullah-Geechee overlay along the four-state route of the Greenway.

Helping advance the prospect is the senator’s conviction that the Greenway could focus attention on helping overcome obesity in youngsters, especially African-Americans. First Lady Michelle Obama has made this a priority of her office.

The mix would also include the Environmental Studies Center at the University of North Florida (UNF), the Scenic & Historic A1A Coastal Byway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine, and Bike Florida. Bike Florida is already expanding its program of extended tours for fall-winter 2010-2011 and might next explore a touring program along the entire Gullah-Geechee Corridor. We at the Greenway Alliance already interact closely with Bike Florida.

UNF’s potential involvement stems from the interest of Dr. Radha Pyati, who directs environmental studies, in establishing an ecotourism program. Jacksonville-based UNF could draw attention to the corridor in many ways, including having students potentially engage in the project. Trail Council member Steve Davis set up the meeting with Dr. Pyati that I also attended.

Pie in the sky for this 360-mile hope?

The Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor has been in place since 2006. Look it up here. We know about the East Coast Greenway Alliance. We know the senator’s interest that has so far resulted in two meetings. Working under his guidelines, I’ve now prepared a working paper that forms the agenda for a third meeting that we expect during the first full week in April.

Byway people haven’t yet been approached, but for the 72-mile corridor, the promise of added attention would seem to have no downside. Nor has talk begun with Bike Florida, though the company has already run one tour for the Greenway Alliance. That was last November’s ride for Closing-the-Gap donors that drew some 20 who altogether traveled our spine and alternative route that forms the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop.

In Florida, we think this hope for closing a gap of 360 miles is worth a lot of attention. We’re giving it.

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