Picture yourself in a boat on a river...
Dozens of folks did just that Saturday in Porterdale, coming to the banks of the Yellow River to enjoy motorized and/or paddle-powered boat rides up river north of the Mill. Thanks to dedicated volunteers Lamar and Kimberly Brown, Fred Franklin, and Cheryl Delk, such outings may soon be just another day in the life of a thriving town bustling with canoeists, kayakers, paddle boarders, cyclists, hikers, joggers, and walkers.
I arrived a little after the noon hour Saturday to find Lamar teaching a young man of 14 from Porterdale how to paddle a kayak. Meanwhile, Fred was giving a father and his three sons a john boat tour up river and back along the shoals by the mill. Amid it all, a young Covington man was practicing his paddle board skills in the calm waters around the bridge.
Kimberly Brown is spearheading a volunteer group to preserve and protect the Yellow River watershed for outdoor recreation, with objectives to keep the river clean and establish put in and take out points for a "blueway" trail along the river. But, it's not all fun and games. When the paddling was over Saturday, Lamar, Fred, and others were headed back upstream to pick up the trash and debris spotted along the shoreline.Newton Trails is partnering with the Yellow River Preservation & Conservation Group, the City of Porterdale, and many other stakeholder groups -- with the objective of rallying support for a Yellow River Park within the 27-acres of riverside property owned today by the City of Porterdale.
Porterdale has twice secured Transportation Enhancement grants from the Georgia Department of Transportation to renovate the historic train depot as a trail head and construct a section of paved trail from Broad St to the existing loop trail by the river. And, Newton County has plans to build the Yellow River/Turkey Creek trail connecting Porterdale to Turner Lake Park in Covington. Together, in partnership, we are aggressively seeking additional grants, private donations, and corporate contributions make the park a reality.
It's a grand project in tough times -- especially in Porterdale. But, it's a project with such incredible potential to transform the historic mill town and create an outdoor recreation destination to draw active tourists from all over north Georgia and beyond.
Close your eyes, and it's easy to imagine what might be. I'm not seeing marshmallow trees or tangerine skies, but I can easily envision a park where "Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers, That grow so incredibly high."
In Porterdale, they dare to dream and they care enough to act. The world needs such places. Come join us and make it happen!
Sigh... Deep breath... Long pause...
Sorry, I still haven't found a better way to control my anger when trail opponents refer to efforts to create safe places to walk and bike as "elitist." These are some of the wealthiest men and women in Newton County, but somehow they have twisted the truth so that even some elected officials say walking and biking are frivolous pursuits of the "elite." Never mind that $4-a-gallon gas and unemployment have made owning and driving a car out of reach for many, trail opponents believe any travel other than by automobile is a luxury they don't want to see funded.
Imagine the surprise when I tell Jimmy over on Thompson Avenue his biking along Floyd Street sidewalks with groceries bags in hand makes him part of Covington's upper crust! The same is true, then, for my neighbor who walks several miles each way to work since her husband lost his construction job last year.
As a board member at Washington Street Community Center (WSCC), I've seen first hand the limited transportation and recreation choices available to children and adults in our most disadvantaged neighborhoods. Over several years, our local cycling club donated more than 50 bikes and over 100 helmets to the children at WSCC. With the help of the Covington Police Department, we taught kids safety and encouraged them to have fun. Unfortunately, there is little safety or fun to be found biking in Washington Street traffic. The kids have no place to bike.
I tried to make that point some time back to a Covington City Councilwoman who insisted trails were of no benefit to her constituents. "My people would not be welcome there," she said. Flabbergasted, I asked her where she wanted me to send the children to walk, bike, or play? She said parents were more concerned with putting food on the table. Even though she acknowledged that transportation grants to acquire the railroad and build a trail could not be used to feed our citizens, she said "Appearance is Reality." She'd bought it hook, line, and sinker... Trails are for elitists.
While the "just say NO" crowd in Newton County continues to vilify anyone trying better poor neighborhoods, there are communities where advocates, government, business leaders, and public health officials get it. They understand place matters. And, they use walking and biking trails to connect healthier places to healthier people. Just watch this video of the Met Branch Trail in Washington, DC, and see if you can spot the "elitists"?
Study after study proves place matters. Residents of poorer neighborhoods have more health issues and shorter life expectancies than those living in areas with higher socioeconomic factors. That's the reality, appearances be damned. And, it's time for leaders who will accept that reality and confront the appearances that keep it hidden from view.
Trails break down barriers and provide greater access to healthy habits and healthier places. You don't have to travel to DC to see it. Viisit the Arabia Mountain Trail in Lithonia some weekend. Try to count the families -- red, yellow, black, and white from every economic level -- out getting healthy together. You'll quickly lose count.
"Priorities First," say the trail opponents. What, pray tell, could be a higher priority than the health, safety, and welfare of all our citizens!? Yeah, I know. That's elitist thinking again...
Sigh... Deep breath... Long pause...
In a recent Covington News editorial
, I criticized Newton County officials for failing to act on plans they adopted over the years affecting the health and well being of county residents. In particular, I referenced the County Recreation Plan for 2005-2011, which documented broad public demand for passive recreation facilities such as walking and biking trails. And, I wondered how our elected leaders can continue to ignore those needs while watching our county fall behind the rest of the state and the nation on key health indicators.Reading the latest Recreation Plan update, the depths of my wonderment only grow.
The Recreation Commission recently updated the previous plan with an extension through 2012.. As part of the update, the commission conducted a web-based survey of Newton County residents in February and March, 2010, which showed:
- Walking/jogging was the most popular activity reported in the survey; bicycling was #3.
- Requested park improvements included more greenspace, expanded walking and hiking trails, more passive recreation facilities, and consideration of dog parks.
- Suggested program improvements included more programming for adult participants.
- The top priority for new facilities was more walking trails; the #3 request was for more bikeways.
The updated plan also reflects a disturbing trend with our recreation facilities inventory when measured by common benchmarks. Standards for healthy communities established by the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) recommend between 6.25 and 10.5 acres of recreation space per 1,000 residents. In 2004, Newton County had 4.34 acres per 1,000 residents; the 2005-2011 plan established a goal to reach a ratio of 6.5 acres by the end of the plan period. However, by the end of 2010, Newton County's actual figure had fallen to 3.66 acres, as we failed to keep pace with the explosive population growth.In the 2012 Plan Extension, the Recreation Commission reported a current shortage of 281 acres of recreation space against the plan target and a projected deficit of 330 acres by 2012
.We have too many people and not enough places for them to exercise or relieve stress. The people are pleading for places to walk, jog, bike, and enjoy passive recreation. But, our County Commission sits inexplicably silent and motionless on the Norfolk Southern Railway opportunity. That corridor features 167 acres of prime recreation
land, and we have federal grants Newton County requested explicitly to build a facility for walking and biking.What is wrong with this picture?