Tweetsie rails over Gap Creek in Elizabethton. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
The Rails-to-Trails Task Force has taken its assignment very seriously and has been hard at work to reshape a 10-mile section of the old Tweetsie Railroad System into a biking, hiking and recreational reality.
After meeting only twice, the first section, a 6-mile stretch from Alabama Street in Johnson City to Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton is projected to open on Labor Day 2014. The overall plan now includes “spurs,” including the pedestrian path from East Tennessee State University to Alabama Street, where a trail head is planned. The trail includes three other sub-sections; from Alabama to Sabine Hill; from Sabine to Sycamore Shoals; and Sycamore Shoals to Snap-On Tools in Elizabethton at State Line Road.
The group, comprised of architects, attorneys, developers, naturalists and others, displayed some quick decision-making Monday, led by its chairman, Dr. Dan Schumaier, who ran a tight and to-the-point dozen-item meeting in short order.
“The bridges are first; the paving is next,” Schumaier said.
Tysinger Hampton & Partners gave a terse but exacting report on the seven rail bridges that are a priority on this project. Each had specific needs but all need new handrails, structural repairs and concrete or asphalt at either end. Two sinkholes have been located on the east side of the main trail. One will be filled; one will be converted into a detention pond.
It should be noted that these are recommendations. But members’ questions were brief and the answers came quickly. Steel girders are recommended at one site. Overhead screening is recommended for another. And no, there is not yet a specific cost. However, Tysinger had laid out a preliminary schedule in which bids would be opened in October and construction on the bridges would be complete in February 2014.
The plan is to create a recreational offering never before seen in East Tennessee, including pedestrian-scale lighting; bicycle parking and water fountains; maps and signage with kiosks at trail heads; art, both functional and aesthetic; and overlooks and rest areas with stone, wrought iron or concrete benches.
This is just a smidgen of what is likely to fly.
“We’re thinking about naming bridges after donors, and you have options of how you want these things designed,” said Gary Tysinger. “We need to make the trail more permanent. You need to put your walkways in meaning for them to stay.”
The group will look at a final design of the bridge repairs in 30 days. And like all construction, it will have to be approved by the City Commission. Regardless, it seems like this project is leaping forward.
Steve Frabitore, a Tupelo Honey stakeholder and task force member, said he and Public Works Department Director Phil Pindzola had come up with two options. The first, connecting the ETSU walkway, which will run in front of the new business, from State of Franklin Road to Legion Street and then on to Alabama. The second choice would have the trail connecting on South Roan Street, turning on to Maples Street and then on to the trail head.
A consensus was formed in less than a minute. The group will recommend the first choice to commissioners.
Ron Cameron, Boy Scouts of America Sequoyah Council director, popped up and told members about the thousands of Scouts that visit the area’s historical sites.
“This is the kind of thing that could support events,” he said. “We’ll be talking with Tipton Haynes and Sycamore Shoals about putting together some of these programs here. We’re going to work with the city to develop a camping area.”
Schumaier then announced that there is “a very substantial donor who is interested the Boy Scouts benefit from this.”
Next, Mike Mefford, with the Rotary Club of Johnson City, offered up a Power Point presentation on which he and Steve Darden, a task force member, attorney and former Johnson City commissioner and mayor, had compiled an extensive list of potential donors. It was crammed with more than 1,000 business contacts, 4,400 residents in an upper-bracket demographic, as well as specifically defined potential corporate donors.
Schumaier then distributed a “preliminary” donor card called “Giving Opportunities,” which heralds the project and provides for very modest donations to the $2,500 and above “Engineer” category.
Darden reported on the possibilities for naming the trail. The word “Tweetsie” has been patented by a theme park in Blowing Rock, N.C., and East Tennessee Railway, so the city would need to seek a “grant of consent” or enter into license agreements before it can be christened the Tweetsie Trail.
“It’s always been known as the Tweetsie Trail,” Darden said. “Still, we might be told ‘no, you can’t use it.’ Or, we might be able to purchase the rights.”
In any case, Darden will be approaching the business to see what, if anything, can be worked out legally.
Also, the group agreed that since the right-of-way belongs to Johnson City, members will recommend that a special fund be set up by the city into which donations can be moved. Darden also suggested it be made clear that any checks contain the phrase “rails-to-trails.”
“From a psychological standpoint, we probably don’t want to have people writing a check to the City of Johnson City,” Schumaier said.
Finally, the Tweetsie Historical Trail Association, which has been supporting the project for sometime, also has a website set up that could be transformed into a city-friendly home for information, donation and progress reports. Members will begin locking in this and other plans at their next meeting on Aug. 26.