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Cullowhee hitches its college-town dreams to the Tuckasegee River

fr riverparkLackluster at best and run-down at worst, it’s no question the has-been commercial district on Western Carolina University’s doorstep needs a life line.


Cullowhee champions hope to prove their theory that a meandering river park along the Tuckasegee River would transform the backside of campus into a vibrant and lively college town atmosphere.

“Ultimately, we are looking at the river park as a catalyst for the revitalization of downtown Cullowhee,” said Anna Fariello, a WCU professor and leader of CuRvE, a grassroots nonprofit dedicated to improving the Cullowhee community.

To borrow a line from college math professors, however, they have to show their work.

The Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor (CuRvE) recently landed a $17,500 grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area to fund an economic impact analysis and feasibility study for a series of river-based amenities in greater Cullowhee.

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A river park, supporters believe, would serve as an anchor to bring people back to Old Cullowhee, which in turn could encourage cafes, bars, coffee shops, bookstores, condos and other merchants to move into the area.

It’s a tried-and-true formula for rekindling rundown downtowns. Public investment in riverscapes has reinvigorated commerce in cities across America, from Greenville, S.C., to San Antonio, Texas. 

The same would likely be true for Cullowhee, albeit on a smaller scale.

But Fariello and fellow CuRvE members realized they needed more than an educated hunch to advance their idea. They needed to quantify the benefits of a river park.

“CuRvE is taking these methodical steps to move us forward — pretty slowly, but with tangible results,” Fariello said.

The hope is the economic impact and feasibility study will help revitalization supporters move into the next phase: buy-in from the community, university and county for a capital fundraising campaign.

“We know a river park will cost into the million dollar phase,” Fariello said. “This will give us the leverage. Otherwise, we will never get any funding.”

Aside from spurring development and commerce, the river-based project would benefit public health by encouraging active lifestyles and recreation. It would be good for tourism by adding a new destination in the county. And it would improve the quality of life and sense of place for WCU students and faculty, she said.

“It is public knowledge that retention is an issue for the university. If you had a great place for students to hang out, that is a win for them,” Fariello said. “I see a river park to be a win-win for every single stakeholder in this region.”

The project, dubbed the Tuckaseegee Heritage River Corridor, takes in several miles of the river. Its crown jewel would be a river park in old Cullowhee with walking paths along the shore, large boulders for lounging by the river, and enhanced paddling features in the river itself.

That’s the most expensive part, and so far only a vision.

Several other aspects are already taking shape upstream and downstream, however.

A community garden, a children’s playground and new paddling put-in and park-like river launch are underway upstream. And downstream, the county will soon start construction of a 1.25-mile greenway segment with yet another boat launch put-in for paddlers.

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