Groundbreaking Held for Ecusta Trail
Story by John Lanier
Photos by Jeff Shields and RJ Miner
A crowd of approximately 400 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the first six-mile stretch of the Ecusta Trail on Saturday, October 28, at the Veterans Healing Farm in Hendersonville. “The dream has become a reality,” said Henderson County Board Chairman Rebecca McCall. “To be able to move dirt and start construction on the first phase of the trail is the culmination of many years of hard work by so many people.”
McCall praised many of the organizations that have helped make the Ecusta Trail a reality, including Conserving Carolina and the Friends of Ecusta Trail (FOET), which put a plan together and delivered it to the Henderson County Board, which unanimously supported it.
“This group is an amazing group of people,” said McCall of FOET.
FOET, a grassroots volunteer group, has championed the vision of the Ecusta Trail since 2009. In 2021, a subsidiary of Conserving Carolina purchased the rail corridor and then worked with FOET to raise funds for construction. Local businesses and individuals gave millions of dollars, making it possible to match major grants, including two large federal grants awarded in the summer of 2023.
“Today’s groundbreaking for the first section of the Ecusta Trail is the culmination of nearly 15 years of advocacy by the Friends of Ecusta Trail (FOET),” said Mark Tooley, FOET President. “What started as a dream and a vision for repurposing the unused rail corridor as a community asset has now come to fruition. I want to especially thank past and present FOET board members for their unwavering determination to get us to this historic event today and to all the volunteers and donors that have provided support and encouragement along the way. In the end, the partnership of federal, state and local governments, nongovernmental organizations, and nonprofits, all striving for the same goal, was the secret sauce that made all of this possible."
Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof lauded all of the partners involved with the Ecusta Trail and said the city of Brevard was “proud to be part of the team.”
“Three years ago the city of Brevard stepped up and agreed to take on the leadership and responsibility for the Transylvania portion of the trail because we realized just how important and transformational this project will be,” said Copelof. “I look forward to the day that is coming soon when Brevard, Etowah, Horse Shoe, Laurel Park and Hendersonville are all linked together by the Ecusta Trail. The city of Brevard rejoices with our Henderson County brothers and sisters on what is truly a regional project.”
In the last year, the city of Brevard has received $45 million in grants to be used for the trail. Copelof has stated several times previously that the city received those grants because it collaborated with other governmental entities, including Henderson County.
Kieran Roe, executive director of Conserving Carolina, said he was impressed by the cooperation between Henderson County, the city of Brevard and other organizations.
"It has been a team effort for sure,” said Roe. “We are so excited to be making this dream real. A project of this scale takes a huge amount of effort and investment and could easily seem beyond reach. But our community made it happen—from the grassroots advocates to the dedicated volunteers to the many generous donors. As we celebrate this milestone for the trail, we are celebrating the vision and generosity of this community."
The final phase in fundraising for the trail is to raise money for amenities so the public can access and enjoy the trail. This includes things like trailheads, restrooms, benches, and signage. This fundraising effort is being led by FOET.
The Ecusta Trail, when fully completed, will be a 19-mile multi-use greenway that connects the communities of Henderson County to the city of Brevard. The first six-mile stretch of the trail will start in downtown Hendersonville, go through the town of Laurel Park and will end at Battle Creek off US 64 in Horse Shoe.
Major funding came from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the State of North Carolina, Henderson County Tourism and Development Authority, Transylvania County Tourism and Development Authority, and private donors. Major donors are recognized on the Conserving Carolina website here.
Construction of the first six-mile stretch is expected to be completed in one year. Completion of the entire trail is expected to take 3-5 years.
Brevard Ecusta Trail
(September Meeting Summary)
By Matt Revis
Brevard City Planner Paul Ray stated he will attend the first gathering of the Hellbender Trail forum, a group comprised of parties interested in connecting the growing number of greenways/trails in WNC. Ray and Aaron Bland will present Ecusta Trail (ET) information to this group. Vicki Eastland mentioned the increase in trail planning and construction in the area. City Councilman Mac Morrow also suggested that connections between all the proposed WNC trails would create a unique system in the country.
Ray continued to share that requests for trail encroachment agreements are receiving attention from the Planning Department, including the fence along Pisgah Labs property. Chuck McGrady suggested delaying final decisions until the exact trail location is determined by engineers.
In grand news, Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof announced a proposal from the Pisgah Health Foundation to donate 11 acres of land next to the Estatoe Trail to the city of Brevard. This generous proposition might also furnish a nice trailhead close to the the Estatoe Trail. Ideas discussed included construction of a park accessible for persons with disabilities at this site. The parcel is located behind Oskar Blues Brewery and next to the Transylvania Regional Hospital.
Larry Chapman related complaints he has heard from Transylvania residents reacting to letters received concerning DOT surveying of trail location. Lonnie Watkins (NC DOT) described these letters as generic announcements of ground surveys during which DOT personnel may walk across private property. On this subject, Chapman and Mayor Copelof mentioned the need for another “town hall” meeting for owners of property adjacent to the trail. Further discussion emphasized the importance of personal contact with owners. Brevard City Manager Wilson Hooper noted that Brevard staff is working on the first edition of the ET Newsletter for release later in November. Designed specifically to address the concerns of property owners, this quarterly letter will be mailed to all landowners (near the trail) and posted to the city website.
McGrady announced that the Henderson County Commissioners accepted a bid to construct Phase I of the Ecusta Trail in Henderson County. NHM Constructors will begin construction soon on the trail section from downtown Hendersonville to Battle Creek Road in Horse Shoe. McGrady said he hopes that some paving will be completed before it’s too cold. A groundbreaking event was set for October 28. In addition, the same engineering firm, Traffic Planning & Design (TPD), that worked on Phase I has been awarded the project to complete engineering design for Phase II of the Ecusta Trail from Horse Shoe to the Transylvania County line. McGrady finished by adding that a current version of the state budget includes $100,000 to assist in Ecust Trail construction.
Watkins noted that work continues to develop a list of trail amenities that the federal grants might pay for. Official approval from federal officials to pay for such accommodations as bathrooms, lights, bike maintenance stations, and benches will benefit trail users and save local funds for other enhancements.
Brevard Ecusta Trail
(October Meeting Summary)
By Matt Revis
Kristin Cozza of Conserving Carolina began this meeting with the announcement that a groundbreaking event would occur October 28 beginning at 10 a.m. Hosted by the Veterans’ Healing Farm (38 Yale Road), parking will be available, and she suggested that those wanting seats should bring folding chairs. Chuck McGrady noted that the groundbreaking is open to the public. Kristin also noted that Conserving Carolina and Traffic Planning & Design sponsored a group to begin planning for a potential connection between the Ecusta Trail and the Saluda Grade Rail Trail.
Paul Ray (Brevard Planning) shared that a list of trail amenities has been developed by Henderson County and Brevard City staff, and with assistance from Lonnie Watkins (NC DOT), is being forwarded to US DOT grant personnel for review and written approval. This huge step will ensure grant dollars for Ecusta Trail accommodations in both counties. The list includes restrooms, parking lots, signage, information stands, emergency call boxes, safety lights, and mileage signs among other items. Watkins will coordinate communication with US DOT on this subject.
McGrady, referring to imminent construction of Ecusta Trail Phase I, emphasized the importance of completing the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) related to trail maintenance and security. The MOU describes the responsibilities that Henderson County, Brevard, Conserving Carolina, and Friends of Ecusta Trail (FOET) will have in ongoing trail maintenance and promotion. A final draft is pending approval.
Brevard Mayor Maureen Copelof shared that she continues waiting for an official letter from the Pisgah Foundation regarding the land donation to the Ecusta Trail. Brevard City Manager Wilson Hooper added that city staff are working on the first ET newsletter, slated for delivery the third week of November. The letter is mailed directly to property owners adjacent to the ET and will be posted to the City website. Hooper mentioned the need for an ongoing reserve to cover extra costs related to trail maintenance. He will continue to keep this subject up front.
John Ditillo (Friends of Ecusta Trail) and Mac Morrow discussed the notion of “trail partners” – businesses that sponsor sections of the ET and in return receive promotional benefits. Ditillo shared that the FOET recently convened a group of over 30 businesses interested in this idea. In other FOET news, Mark Tooley, president of FOET, shared that a team from NC State University is interested in research on the impact of the Ecusta Trail on local economies, land values, employment, and other factors. The entire committee received this as outstanding news and expressed support for this to begin as soon as possible.
The next meeting of this committee is November 29, 2023.
Henderson County Rail-Trail
(October Meeting Summary)
By Lynn Huffman
Kristin Cozza, Trails and Greenways Coordinator for Conserving Carolina (CC), reported on CC’s preparations and publicity for the October Ecusta Trail (ET) groundbreaking ceremony. She also reported that CC hosted a kickoff meeting with the Saluda Grade Stakeholders on the feasibility study being done.
Friends of Ecusta Trail (FOET) President Mark Tooley reported that FOET has been working with a group of individuals that include Henderson County and the City of Brevard on updating the branding of the trail. He showed a draft of images to the group and requested feedback from the RTAC. FOET is also working with Henderson County in planning the October groundbreaking.
Ken Shelton thanked Henderson County for the proclamation for North Carolina’s Year of the Trail that the Board of Commissioners approved.
Henderson County Business and Community Development Director Chris Todd reported that the groundbreaking event for the Ecusta Trail was scheduled for a Saturday in October at the Veterans Healing Farm. The event will begin around 10:00 and will include a 30–40 minute program with various speakers, including the actual groundbreaking of the trail.
Marcus Jones, Henderson County engineer, reported that the county is working closely with NCDOT with record speed on proceeding with the construction of Ecusta Trail East, the 5.7 miles from Hendersonville to Horse Shoe. He reminded the RTAC that the county received 5 bids on the trail construction and 2 of those were not completed and were rejected. The award will go to NHM Constructors, and the bid was within $100,000 of the engineers’ estimate. Ecusta Trail East is expected to be completed by the end of calendar year 2024. He also stated that the Board authorized the county engineer to select JMT for the engineering of Ecusta Trail West, pending all needed documents with NCDOT.
Chris Todd reported that the county is still working with the jurisdictions and organizations on the draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding the level of service, ongoing maintenance and event management of the trail. Staff has received comments from Conserving Carolina and FOET and is incorporating all of those requested changes. The goal is to have the MOU finalized by the end of the year.
Henderson County Senior Planner Janna Bianculli reported that planning staff, with assistance from Joe Sanders of FOET, hosted two public meetings for business owners adjacent to the trail to primarily discuss the Trail Partners & Supporters Program. She explained the purpose of the program to the RTAC and explained that the program is not in effect until the first phase of the trail is completed. She also asked the RTAC for their input and feedback on program operations as well as how to connect with the business community. A recorded presentation from the public meeting can be seen on the Planning Department’s website here.
Henderson County Rail-Trail
(November Meeting Summary)
By Matt Revis
Chuck McGrady (Chair) began this meeting by noting the great work of Hendersonville and Henderson County staff in the planning and execution of the Ecusta Trail (ET) groundbreaking event held late October at the Veterans Healing Farm, captured in this video. A large crowd of trail supporters and stakeholders influential in the long effort to bring the ET to the edge of construction watched the ritual of shoveled dirt signifying the start of construction. All Henderson County Commissioners attended along with Mayor Copelof and city staff from Brevard.
Of special note, Henderson Commissioners approved the contract for construction of the trail. Awarded to NHM Constructors at a cost of $10,629,359. Marcus Jones (Henderson County Engineer) commented that staff from NHM have been cooperative during the complex bureaucratic machinations related to the various funding sources, each source with its own rules and expectations. These funds should be approved at the next NC Board of Transportation meeting on November 15. With funds released, NHM will begin installation of drainage control and track clearing necessary to prep the trail for paving. Initial paving may begin Spring of 2024 and Mr. Jones anticipated a finish date for this first section of the ET (termed Ecusta East) by the end of 2024.
In addition, progress moves rapidly toward construction of the next 5 miles of trail, now called Ecusta West, as shared by Jones and Autumn Radcliff (Henderson Planning). The Henderson Board of Commissioners (BOC) has approved the selection of Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson, Inc. (JMT) to perform preliminary engineering of this section. The BOC also approved an agreement with the NC Department of Transportation (NC DOT) to allow Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG) money for this purpose, and it is expected the Board of Transportation will pass a final approval in December 2023. If so, JMT will begin Preliminary Engineering (PE) in January 2024. The expected completion time of PE for Ecusta West is approximately 18 months, after which bidding will begin for construction of this final Henderson section. Potentially building of the Ecusta West section will coincide with the start of ET construction in Transylvania County.
The NC DOT has forwarded a list of trail amenities to the Federal Highways Administration requesting approval for grant funds to pay for trailside convenience such as trash bins, parking, restrooms, bike racks, water fountains, benches and trail signage. Stakeholders and grant requestors did not anticipate that grant funds would pay for such items.
Next meeting of this group is to be determined later, possibly skipping the regular December meeting (12/13) and re-convening January 10, 2024.
The Dream is Becoming a Reality!
Now that the excitement of the grant money and the Ecusta Trail groundbreaking is in the rear view, the Ecusta Trail continues to be in need of additional funding. We hope that you will consider this year’s Giving Tuesday (November 28) as your opportunity to continue to support the Ecusta Trail.
November/December ET Events
Henderson County R-TAC Meeting
Our next meeting may be 12/13/23 or 1/10/24. Please check our website for the latest details.
Brevard Ecusta Trail Advisory Board Meeting
November 29, 2023 @ 3:30pm – 5:30pm
No meeting in December. See you next year!
Open to the public. Meeting at City Council Chambers.
FOET NEWSLETTER CONTRIBUTORS: Bernard Grauer, Lynn Huffman, John Lanier, RJ Miner, Matt Revis and Cindy Ruzak.