Proposed walking/biking trail would go 30 miles between Abingdon, Va. and Elizabethton

By John Thompson of the Johnson City Press

ELIZABETHTON — In less than three years, the Tweetsie Trail between Johnson City and Elizabethton has become a success, drawing walkers, runners and cyclists from near and far.

So, how about a trail to Abingdon?

Since its creation, the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail has been mostly a designated route for motorists, but now the U.S. Department of Interior and the National Park Service are leading an effort to create a 30-mile walking/bike trail between the Mustering Grounds in Abingdon and Sycamore Shoals.

Jon Hartman, Elizabethton’s director of planning and economic development, said his office was approached by staff from the U.S. National Park Service a little over a year ago. He said they were proposing a master plan and development of the Overmountain Trail.

“I contacted my colleagues in other surrounding jurisdictions,” Hartman wrote in a brief for the Elizabethton City Council. “We met and started working with our individual government agencies to try to put together the funding for this plan.” He said the Park Service was proposing a 60/40 matching grant to the local jurisdictions to put toward the master planning for the proposed trail.

Hartman said every city and county the trail passes through has agreed to contribute to the 40 percent needed for the planning grant.

Contributions would come from: Elizabethton, $5,000; Carter County, $5,000; Sullivan County, $7,000; Bluff City, $3,000; Bristol Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization, $5,000; Washington County, Virginia, $2,500; Abingdon, $5,000; Rocky Mount Chapter of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association, $2,000; East Tennessee Foundation, $2,500; Eastman Chemical Co., $2,000.

The National Park Service would fund $61,500 to the Rocky Mount Chapter of the Overmountain Victory Trail Association to coordinate master planning efforts. The Service would also apply for funding, where feasible, for construction of the trail after the master plan is completed.

The proposed end of the trail at Sycamore Shoals would come within a few hundred feet of the Tweetsie Trail, providing another 10 miles of trail and access to Johnson City.

The trail marks the route taken by Southwest Virginia men in September 1780 from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals.

After joining with men from the Watauga, Nolichucky and Holston settlements, the patriots — known as the Overmountain Men — marched over the Appalachian Mountains to confront a British commander and his loyalist force at Kings Mountain in South Carolina.

Their victory is considered one of the turning points of the Revolutionary War.

Whitelaw, Rouse run away with Downtown Mile titles

By Tanner Cook 

With the atmosphere of a perennial big-time race, the inaugural Downtown Mile did not disappoint.

The night began with a kids’ dash that gave spectators the idea of an event that encompasses the entire family. The next race on tap was the open mile race for runners that may not have been as fast as the elites, but were still quick in their own respects.

The night concluded with the Fleet Feet Elite Mile that had a total cash prize payout of $700 split between the men and the women. Spectators were treated to male runners that broke five minutes for a mile and women that broke six minutes.

In his first-ever road mile, Johnson City native and former Tennessee Volunteer runner Austin Whitelaw took home the men’s title in a blazing time of 4:29. Whitelaw had a wire-to-wire victory, leading from the outset.

“I was pleased with my time. I liked the course, but it had a lot of turns. The hairpin turn before the half-mile point was bad, but I had to deal with it,” said Whitelaw. “The course was pretty flat and spectator-friendly with people about every 100 meters or so.”

In the women’s race, two-time Knoxville marathon winner and mother of three Gina Rouse took home the title with a time of 5:09.

“This was really a last-minute jump in the van and come up to run for me from Knoxville,” remarked Rouse. “This was a great event for all ages and experience levels. I loved that there was a kids race. I would’ve brought my own kids if their bedtime wasn’t 8:00.”

The Downtown Mile was a celebration of Global Running Day and there was even a post-race party for runners at one of the title sponsors, Yee-Haw! Brewing Company, which was just a short walk away from the finish area on East Main Street.

25-mile State of Franklin Loop Trail system in planning stages for next 10 years, to cost between $5-$7 million

Written by Tony Casey (Johnson City Press) 

It’s just a Johnson City Public Works survey on walkability and health.

But its results could change the face of recreation and accessibility to sidewalks, trails, greenways, downtown Johnson City and area businesses.

East Tennessee State University College of Public Health student Cheyenne Peavler, working as an intern for the Johnson City department, helped put together and distribute an online survey that is turning heads across the state.

The point of the survey, on Survey Monkey, titled “JC Public Works Walkability & Health Survey” is to gauge the public’s feelings on the use of sidewalks and trails, public health concerns, physical activity and more, and hints at how it will all come together.

A 25-mile long State of Franklin Loop Trail, adding to existing trail and pavement segments, would link Winged Deer Park, Mountain Home VA, Rocky Mount State Historic Site, The Tweetsie Trail, Boone Lake and along Brush Creek. Along with paved passages for runners, joggers, walkers and cyclists, there would also be a 10-mile section that would mostly go off-road, uninterrupted by vehicle traffic.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said the project is estimated to cost between $5 million and $7 million and would be completed in a series of phases over the next 10 years. It would be a part of Johnson City’s capital improvement projects.

Dan Reese worked with Pindzola and their fellow Tweetsie Trail task force members in getting that 10-mile recreational trail connecting Johnson City and Elizabethton up and running. Both have unequivocally said they’ve seen public health attitudes and outcomes improve since the August 2014 opening of the trail, and expect only more of this with the addition of an expanded trail system.

Reese, a consultant sought across the state for his knowledge on trails and accessibility for pedestrians, walkers, joggers, runners and cyclists traveling through their municipalities, said he passed along Peavler’s survey to Bob Richards, who works with him on the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s Commissioner's Council on Greenways & Trails.

“This is a great model survey,” Richards told Reese, suggesting it could used in communities across the state.

Peavler said that as of Friday, about 80 people had completed the survey, and by its conclusion, she’d love to have several hundred responses. It’s only available until April 25 and so far, cyclists are the ones who seem to be completing it in the greatest numbers.

At this stage in the game, the survey, among other questions, asks those answering the questions if they’d support a tax increase to pay for the completion of additional sidewalks connecting city neighborhoods or for the completion of the 25-mile trail.

Dave Holben, a member of the Johnson City Cycling Club, said he’s salivating at the thought of a 10-mile, off-road section of trail available to cyclists like himself. But as far as the tax increase goes, he suspects many will respond with something equating to a plea to cut funding for other programs if they want to see public funds go to this project.

Holben points at the many examples of bettered public health he’s seen since the Tweetsie Trail opened.

“I am hearing more and more people that I know who've not been active in the past, talking about getting out and walking and cycling and running on the trail,” he said.

Pindzola said unlike the Tweetsie Trail, which brought in the monetary and in-kind donations of many in the private sector for its completion, the city will not seek the same donations this time around.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

Course records broken in 11th annual Turkey Trot

Written by Jessica Fuller (Johnson City Press) 

Run now, gobble later.

Thousands of participants in the 11th annual Turkey Trot decided to get a good 5K in before digging into the Thanksgiving turkey Thursday morning.

Just over 3,700 participants ran this year, which is a down few hundred from last year’s 4,000 participants. Zasnoba Mashkori, who works for We Run Events, said that Wednesday’s registration numbers were down from last year. The problem with this Wednesday was the blanket of wildfire smoke plaguing the region, which Mashkori said probably contributed to the drop in participants.

But the decline didn’t stop the Trot from being one of the biggest 5Ks in the region, and some of this year’s winners managed to break course records.

The top three overall male runners all broke the course record, with East Tennessee State University graduate student Austin Whitelaw coming in with the best time at 14:43, meeting his personal goal of breaking 15 minutes.

Whitelaw ran track at the University of Tennessee before graduating in May, and said he took it easy over the summer before beginning his training in September for his first Turkey Trot.

Luke Meade, from Bluff City, came in second with a time of 15:01, and Joseph Mullen took third place at 15:17. All three men set new records for the course with their times.

Stephanie Place record the best time among females at  18:03. She was followed by Emily Boles at 18:29 and Natalia Rivas at 18:45.

This was 11-year-old Michael Athey’s first run in the Turkey Trot. Finishing at 27 minutes, Michael said he had a good run. He used to play soccer when he was younger, but decided to start running cross country at Holston Middle School this year.

Michael said he likes to run because it’s fun and keeps him healthy.

His parents, Dianna and Mike, stood on the sidelines this year to get pictures of Michael’s first Turkey Trot, but said they have plans to walk the marathon next year to support their son and other family members who participate in the Trot.

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

Reflections on the Tweetsie Trail after two years

Written by Tony Casey (Johnson City Press)

The Tweetsie Trail officially opened on August 30, 2014, with the Tweetsie Trail Trek—an approximate 4-mile fun run into Johnson City, with participants coming up the trail from Carter County’s Lions Field for a celebration.

It was a symbolic run, as it showed how Johnson City, Elizabethton and Carter County’s elected officials, business folk and civic leaders had come together to get this what-would-be 10-mile recreational trailopened. While many people during that run laid their feet on that soft-surfaced trail for the first time, I was one of those people who did something I shouldn’t have by running it many times before it opened.

After Johnson City officially acquired the rights to the trail and the plan for the Tweetsie Trail was set in motion, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I frequently ran with my friends, talking all along about how wonderful it will be to have our very own rails-to-trails project in Johnson City.

Two years later, simply put: Johnson City’s Tweetsie Trail hasn’t disappointed.

These feet have run at least a few thousand miles on the Tweetsie Trail, and I know I’m not the only one, as this is one of the most well known and accessible running spots in the region. The trailhead’s parking lot holds about 25 parked cars. On any given weekday, those spots — though there’s quite a high rate of turnover — are hot commodities. Overflow parking has ended up directly next to and immediately across Alabama Street, which isn’t well accepted by the nearby residences and businesses.

Johnson City’s Public Works Department has sought to solve this problem by achieving two goals at once. The city owns a massive concrete plot on the corner of State of Franklin Road and Legion Street, about a half-mile from the trailhead. In extending access to the trail from this concrete plot, they open up nearly 100 more parking spaces, and achieve another goal of connecting one of Johnson City’s best amenities with downtown Johnson City.

If you’ve done as I often do and take up small talk with the people who park in the Tweetsie’s lot before and after their activities, you’ll learn that many are coming in from Western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia and out toward Knoxville. As I do when I go out to their respective places on the map, I rarely make those hour-plus long drives without at least spending a few bucks in those places I visit; and I assume these folks coming to Johnson City to run, walk or ride the Tweetsie are doing the same thing.

Downtown businesses have confirmed that, On weekends especially, they see new customers who’ve either popped in for a coffee, beer or a bite to eat after using the Tweetsie.

What more can you ask for in regard to opening up an amenity that betters public health, all while being used as a driver for economic development?

It probably would be fair to call the later stages of the Tweetsie Trail coming together as nearly seamless, with private donors and organization thriving on the opportunity to supply this amenity to the people of the region. But that’s not to say there weren’t heated discussions along the way.

Horses not being allowed on the trail — that was a big one leading up to the portion of the process when the trail’s rules were being developed. Comparing it to the nearest and closest example we have — Abingdon, Virginia’s Creeper Trail — the conclusion was that because the trails are rather different than each other, that it was a risk Johnson City didn’t want to take, having horses mix with cyclists, runners, joggers and walkers.

Two years later, giving the way we move rather quickly on our faster runs, the way cyclists whip down the trail or the way a handful of little kids might congregate on the tight bridges, this was a great choice. Guns were briefly discusses as well, and because it was determined that the Tweetsie Trail would be designated as a Johnson City park, guns were allowed for open-carry. Not once has it come across my attention that there’s been a problem with this, perhaps other than in principle.

It was also alleged — by my recollection from the people who did not want horses disallowed from the trail — that the Tweetsie Trail was a gathering spot for criminals already, and the city’s efforts would be in vain against the collective ne'er-do-well evil presence. To this day, I don’t recall coming across any criminals on the trail.

Perhaps I have an exception to the last sentence I wrote. On several occasions, when running early in the morning, as my running group always does, we’ve come across several vehicles that have been parked directly in the middle of the trail, which is absolutely not allowed. This is near the entrances to the apartment complexes at the 1.6-mile marker part of the trail.

When asked to move them, these people have frequently gotten confrontational and threatening. But after a phone call to the organizers of the trail and some light enforcement, this has also self-corrected, as I haven’t encountered this problem at all in 2016.

As the trail continues to evolve with the needs of its users and the people of the region, you can expect it to continue to improve, too. You can also expect to continue to see the public health outcomes in the region improve, along with the bottom lines or local business owners.

Email Tony Casey at tcasey@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.