On Wednesday, I attended a quarterly meeting of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission's
(NEGRC) Bicycle & Pedestrian Task Force. The NEGRC is to the 12 counties around Athens what the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) is the metro Atlanta area. Newton County is part of the Northeast Region.At yesterday's meeting
we were joined for the first time by the Mayor of Good Hope, George Garrett. Mayor Garrett spoke enthusiastically to task force members about the great big things going on in the little town of Good Hope (population 289 people).While small in population and land area (1.8 square miles), Good Hope is a sizeable landmark in the region's cycling community. Situated at the junction of GA highways 83 and 186, the town is a crossroads linking popular cycling routes in the Rockdale/Newton/Walton County area to those frequented by cyclists out of Athens. On any given Saturday, and many weekdays as well, you'll find hungry, thirsty riders sitting outside the Good Hope General Store, enjoying a homemade biscuit and a swig of Gatorade.
Every April, the town's population swells several hundred percent with the influx of riders participating in the annual Tony Serrano Century Ride
. The roads around Good Hope are fantastically good for bike riding, which leads to the town being prominently featured in rides like the Serrano.So, with the Mayor's enthusiastic support, along with Serrano Ride Director Paul Jones and DeDe Harris at Walton Wellness, an incredible program is taking shape that will cement and enhance Good Hope's place on the Georgia cycling map.
The Walton Road Share project
is identifying and publishing popular cycling routes on the program web site
. And, Walton Wellness is developing a "wellness ride" to promote cycling as a healthy activity for county residents. Along the way, the city will also be seeking grants to build a welcome center/comfort station for cyclists and encouraging more events to start/finish in Good Hope."Good Hope: Happy to Share Our Roads." That's the slogan on the Walton Road Share web site. And, I loved how Mayor Garrett explained it as I talked to him after Wednesday's task force meeting..."These rides bring over a thousand cyclists through our town," he said. "And, when they leave, there isn't a piece of trash left anywhere. We love having the cyclists. We want them to continue coming and to stay longer with us"Good Hope is a town that gets it. And, that
means more hope for the rest of us.For more information on the NEGRC Bike/Ped task force, see the most recent Regional Plan for Biking & Walking.
There's a familiar saying: "Those who say it can't be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it." I'm taking it a step further. Forget those who say it can't be done, find those who are doing it, and help make it happen! Where there's no will, there's no way. And, greenway trails are built with willpower.
Local news has been dominated for months by repeated refusals from the Covington City Council and Newton County Board of Commissioners to consider acquiring the Central of Georgia Railroad corridor -- for trail use or any other purpose. We'll take that up another day, for there are many pages left unturned in that book. But, today, I want to highlight a story receiving far less coverage: the recent Transportation Enhancements (TE) grant awarded to the City of Porterdale by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT). That $250 thousand grant, backed by local SPLOST collections and private contributions, will fund a project to convert the Historic Railroad Depot into a trail head and community events facility and also construct a concrete trail connecting the Depot to Broad St and the existing loop trail by the Yellow River.
I met Thursday morning with Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby, City Manager Bob Thompson, and the city's contracted engineer Marty Boyd. We reviewed drawings and the project budget. By itself, restoring the Depot and creating a short connecting trail is a great first step. But, even more impressive are the city's visionary plans for a comprehensive Riverside Park in the area along the river across Broad St north of the Lofts. When you factor in the county's Turkey Creek/Yellow River Trail project that would connect Porterdale to Newton High School and Turner Lake Park in Covington, your imagination runs wild. Leveraging the greenway trail system with a water trail for canoists, kayakers, and boaters on the Yellow River, you quickly see the tourism and economic development impacts that will transform Porterdale.
Porterdale is a city with big dreams taking small steps. And at a time when larger communities seem paralyzed by a lack of unified vision, small steps are cause for big celebration! These are the people who created a community garden, a farmers market, and a public library from sheer will, personal determination, and a refusal to be limited by things as they are. These are the people who will someday restore their beloved landmark gymnasium lost to fire. And, these are the people who will create a Riverside Park that is the envy of all Newton County and beyond.
At Newton Trails, we support and admire the people of Porterdale. In the weeks ahead, I will work with our board and the City of Porterdale to determine how best to partner and assist them in their cause. And, I know we can count on you, our supporters, to join us in that effort.
In this video, a group of adults said it couldn't be done. But the will of a young boy, personally committed to creating a different reality, inspired a different outcome. We've found that will in Porterdale, now let's find the way!
They say that these are not the best of times, but they're the only times I've ever known.
That opening from Billy Joel's song Summer Highland Falls sticks with me. I'm not sure what Billy meant to convey, but the lyric reinforces my belief there's nothing to be gained by dwelling on the circumstances in which we find ourselves. These may turn out to be good times or bad times years from now, in some historian's rear view mirror. But, for me, they are only my times. And, whether by divine purpose or simply the hand of fate, here and now is my one ride on the merry go round.
I thought about "these times" often this past week, as we all do, reading story after story about the monumental challenges facing federal, state, and local leaders as they wrestle with shrinking revenues, reduced budgets, and a stagnant economy. Good or bad, one thing is certain: these are tough times. They are tough times for families to make ends meet, and they are tough times to advocate investments in our future.... such as a trail system.
But, saying these are "my times" is not just acknowledging the luck of the draw. It's about ownership. It's believing we take the cards we are dealt and we play the very best hand we can. And, I believe, even in times like these, the winning hand is the one that builds a foundation for better days we hope and/or believe lie ahead. Good things do not come to those who wait. They come to those who create a world in which good things are inevitable.
Following the Dec 7 vote by the Newton County Board of Commissioners authorizing a grant request for the Eastside Trail that may require $100,000 in matching funds, I had a frank discussion with a fellow citizen. This gentleman was clearly troubled by this action and felt the timing was all wrong in light of the county's budget woes. While he accepted that trails might foster economic development to benefit the county, his analogy was basically that this was no time to go elephant hunting, when we needed to save our nuts to feed the hungry.
I took his argument to heart. But, I countered with my view. The problem now is there simply are not enough nuts to feed everyone. Our explosive population growth and the skew towards a residential tax base -- with too little revenue to fund basic services and not enough good jobs to go around -- has put our county in a bad place. We cannot rely on our available store of nuts to feed us until better days are here. We must act now to foster economic development and attract commercial and industrial business to our community. (I was pleased to see that, despite all the challenges he faces, our new Governor has put economic development at the top of his short list of protected funding. It's a tough sell in a down economy, but it truly is our only hope.)
Trails are not magic. A 10-foot-wide strip of concrete won't change the world, nor will it reverse our economic fortunes over night. But, they are an important element in an overall economic development strategy to right our tax base and generate new revenue streams for our local economy. The tourism impact of walking/biking trails is well documented across the nation. And, increasingly communities are using greenway trails as a lifestyle draw for major new industries. Chattanooga recently landed a $1B investment from Volkswagen of America that will create more than 2,200 new jobs. And, part of their package to close the deal was a major park and trail system the city and county built on the site of the new industrial park. In a competitive landscape, these are the things that set one location apart from another. These are the indicators that tell a potential new industry that they can recruit and retain professional talent in one community better than in another.
Yes, these are tough times. But, they are my times and they are your times. May we continue doing that which much be done to bring us once again to good times.
The State of Florida is so sold on the economic benefits of trails and greenways, they established a State Office of Greenways & Trails
within the Department of Environmental Protection. Earlier this year, that office reported over 4 million visitors to Florida's trails in 2009 and acknowledged $95 million in economic impact. (Click here
to see the formal resolution.)Most, if not all, cyclists headed to bike Florida trails must pass through Georgia on the way.
(Airlines charge outrageous fees to carry a bicycle as luggage.) In these challenging economic times, Georgia would do well to promote our existing trails -- like the nationally renowned Silver Comet -- and invest in extending those trails to become a destination for outdoor vacationers and adventure cyclists. And, Newton County is perfectly poised to be the east metro link in that chain of connected trails from the Chief Ladiga in Alabama, to the Silver Comet in west Georgia, to the Atlanta BeltLine, through DeKalb and Rockdale, to our community and beyond.We'd better hurry, though. As the resolution clearly states, Florida is moving boldly ahead with hundreds of miles of greenway trails.
We can't afford to keep falling behind.Stay and bike Georgia first!
Newton County Trail Path Foundation, Inc was incorporated in 1997 by a group of people advocating an extensive multi-use trail network through Newton County long before I ever considered this a cause I could champion. Yet, there are those who know I am a cyclist and assume I must be interested in trails and greenways for my own personal use. The truth is, however, I was not a trail proponent until about two years ago.
As a road cyclist, I had little use for off-road biking and walking trails. I had everything I needed on the fantastic country roads stretching across Newton and surrounding Jasper, Morgan, and Walton Counties. This rural landscape is a bicycle rider's dream. That all started to change, though, in the Fall of 2008. That October, I and five fellow cyclists set out on a ride on the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga Trails, from Mableton to Anniston and back. -- 184 miles, all on trails paved over converted railroad lines..
I'd ridden the Silver Comet twice before, but only on short segments within Cobb County. This was different. Leaving the congestion of Cobb County behind, we made our way through towns like Hiram, Rockmart, Cedartown, Piedmont, and Jacksonville. The scenery was incredible. The mix of users along the trail changed as we went along. From joggers, triathletes, and dog walkers in Cobb, we soon made our way out into the hinterlands. Before long, we were seeing Boy Scout Troops on a weekend hike or bike, couples making a vacation journey, and locals out for a Saturday/Sunday ride. All along the way, we met Georgians in Alabama and folks from Alabama in Georgia.
In Piedmont, AL, we stumble into a Fall street festival, complete with bands, face painting, bake sales, and the like. And there we were, joining right in. We ate a full lunch at Frankie's in Rockmart, and we hit plenty of convenience stores and fast food stops in town after town, fueling us along our journey. Including our overnight stay in Anniston, I figured we spent over $600 in total , or $100 a night per person.
Already a member of the Covington/Newton County Tourism Advisory Committee at the Chamber of Commerce, I was anxious to tell our story. To me, the opportunity was clear. In the months after that journey, I began researching and found community after community where trails and greenways had directly translated into tourism spending, profits for local merchants, and increased revenues for local governments. I even found communities that had landed major new employers by recruiting industries that values walking and biking trails as an amenity to retain employees.
I've been an advocate every since -- solely because of the much needed economic impact. Since that time, as I encourage more and more people of all ages to bicycle, I'm seeing the increased need to provide safe places to bike and walk in Newton County. But, the beauty is we can build these places for our citizens, and generate economic prosperity for local businesses at the same time. It's a win-win.