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.

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