More than a year of planning, collaboration and plain old-fashioned hard work has resulted in a new kids bike park along the Jackson County Greenway, an accomplishment celebrated during a sunlit ribbon-cutting event held at noon Thursday, Oct. 24.
“This park right here, not only is it a tangible, concrete resource for kids immediately and today, but it also stands for, I think, effective and incredibly positive collaboration and partnership between our organization and Jackson County, which I think could materialize into other exciting things,” said Michael Despeaux of the Nantahala Area Southern Off Road Bicycling Association.
The ribbon-cutting featured remarks from Despeaux, County Commissioner Ron Mau and Jackson County Outdoor Recreation Manager Molly Neary, as well as music from the Smoky Mountain High School Concert Band and demonstrations from the Western Carolina University Cycling Club. A door prize drawing hosted by Motion Makers Bicycle Shop left nearly every attendee holding some piece of swag, with several kids giving the track a test run once the ceremony was complete.
A.J. Ferguson, 7, tries out the new trails following the ceremony. Holly Kays photos
Nantahala SORBA took the lead in the bike park effort, with the idea first floating to the surface during one of the organization’s board of directors meetings last year. As it happened, the bike park concept was already part of the county’s recreation master plan, so SORBA teamed up with the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department to develop a conceptual plan for the bike park. That plan went to the Greenway Committee, which approved it and sent it to the Parks and Recreation Committee, which delivered it to its final stop — the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.
Commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding for the project on Nov. 19, 2018, and from there it was just a question of execution. Getting it done required the generosity of a wide range of partners.
While the project is built on county land and required some staff time from county workers to plan and execute, the actual construction effort cost exactly $0 in taxpayer money.
“There are a lot of folks that were involved with this and made this happen, donated time, talent, financial resources, et cetera, and it’s going to be a great project for the community,” Mau told the crowd gathered for the ribbon cutting.
Recreation Director Rusty Ellis helps a gathering of young ribbon-cutters wield the large ceremonial scissors.
The list of contributors is a long one. Baxter’s Landscaping and Trees cut the locust trees used for trail features, BH Graning Landscapes provided rocks for the rock garden, Birds Eye Handyman constructed the pavilion, Duke Energy gave beams to support the platform, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians donated the dirt used to top the trails, Harrison Construction gave the 150 tons of rock that form their base, The Play Sanctuary rallied area kids to help with the work days, McNeely’s Store and Rental helped out with equipment and Run of the Mill Carpentry consulted on the pavilion construction.
Then there was Trail Dynamics, the Brevard-based trail construction company that built the mountain biking trails at Western Carolina University and Fire Mountain.
“They came in and pro bono gave us $30,000 probably worth of time and labor and expertise and machine time,” said Despeaux.
And finally, the Rotary Club of Sylva and the Great Smokies Health Foundation provided the cash infusion that Nantahala SORBA needed to bring the project to the finish line — the $4,000 grant from Rotary funded the pavilion, and $5,000 from the GSHF helped SORBA with some final costs to close out the project, with a chunk left over to fund phase two.
That phase will go in on a slightly smaller space just a few hundred feet up the greenway from the new bike park, which itself is at roughly the halfway point of the mile-long trail. It will take cyclists about 30 seconds to ride from one section to another via the greenway, with SORBA looking into the possibility of a dedicated bicycle connector using an existing Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority easement.
“I think we’re going to be spending that money on wooden features, which is a little different than what you see here,” said Despeaux, gesturing across the new park. “This is earthen features, berms and sort of a full trail of rocks and logs. We’ll actually have some low-level ramps and some really cool state-of-the-art wooden features, which will be made possible with the Great Smokies Health Foundation grant.”
Despeaux expects that phase will be complete sometime next spring, but for now Jackson County’s kids have plenty of play to be getting on with. The bike park features a swirling loop-the-loop of dirt paths — much of it mostly flat, but also incorporating log and rock features as well as small hills where beginning riders can experience the stomach drop of a swift shift to downhill and more advanced cyclists can catch some air.
“This is going to be such a special asset to our list of parks and facilities,” said Neary. “It not only promotes just getting outside, but it promotes a healthy lifestyle for families and for people to get plugged in and do something that’s outside what a lot of kids are experiencing today behind computer screens and video games. This is a park that is going to bring life to kids.”
The Smoky Mountain High School Concert Band opens the ceremony with a performance of the national anthem.
Jackson County’s recreation department has long had a specific emphasis on activities beyond the team sports, gym workouts and picnic areas typically offered by county recreation departments. In addition to the greenway, two recreation centers and a roster of community parks, the department oversees six river access parks, one campground and Judaculla Rock, whose ancient Cherokee markings make it the largest petroglyph east of the Mississippi.
“It is my personal goal to help encourage, educate, promote and build a strong outdoor recreation community that will benefit the overall health and unity of our community,” said Neary. “We all need to continue to work together to help encourage each other, to push our passions forward, and just be a strong bonding community for the outdoor recreation field.”
While there are no specific plans yet outside of next spring’s bike park expansion, SORBA hopes to see even more trails traverse Western North Carolina in the future.
“Wherever there is potential for trails to be built by cities and counties and governments, because we’re a 501c3 organization we’re eligible to create formal agreements with those government agencies to help make a trail happen,” said Despeaux. “So we would be thrilled to be involved in any projects in 2020, 2021, 2022.”