Archived Outdoors

River park efforts revived in Cullowhee

An artist’s rendering imagines what a river park in Cullowhee might look like. Donated rendering An artist’s rendering imagines what a river park in Cullowhee might look like. Donated rendering

Work could begin on a long-awaited river park in Cullowhee sooner rather than later following completion of an N.C. Department of Transportation bridge project in the Old Cullowhee area. 

“We got the new maps from the DOT of where the road configuration was, and DOT had to acquire a lot of property to swing that road around,” said Anna Fariello, a longtime member of the community nonprofit Cullowhee Revitalization Endeavor, or CuRvE. “I didn’t realize how much land they actually took. We’re looking at these maps, and I was blown away.”

Working toward revitalization 

CuRvE has been working to breath new life into the Old Cullowhee area since its founding in 2007, and creating a river park on the Tuck has been a cornerstone of its plan to make that happen. In 2014, the group commissioned an economic impact study that concluded a river park would bring $1.2 million in new spending to Jackson County each year, supporting 16 jobs, adding $375,000 in income and generating $145,000 in annual tax revenues.

Before the four-lane N.C. 107 replaced Old Cullowhee Road as the main entrance to Western Carolina University, Old Cullowhee was the front door to campus. In a previous interview, CuRvE member Rick Bennett, who moved to Jackson County in 1966, recalled the thriving community that existed there in the 1970s, boasting 17 restaurants, four gas stations and three grocery stores. 

The Cullowhee of 50 years ago is a far cry from the struggling crossroads now in existence, but CuRvE members believe that it could become a vibrant community once more. 

Bennett spoke to The Smoky Mountain News for a 2014 story that came in the midst of a productive season for CuRvE — the organization had received the results of the economic impact study it commissioned, as well as artistic renderings of what the area could one day be. Within the next year, a feasibility study would be completed and community planning standards passed for the Cullowhee area, also resulting in the formation of the Cullowhee Planning Council. 

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Activity has stalled over the past five years, and that’s been largely due to the bridge project. DOT’s efforts to replace the bridge and improve the associated intersection took place in the exact location CuRvE had been eying for a future park. 

“Once the bridge started, we almost couldn’t do anything, but we worked behind the scenes with DOT,” said Fariello. 

CuRvE advocated for the new bridge to include as many features as possible to make it both aesthetically appealing and functional for future recreational use. The final product, completed in September, included stamped and stained concrete resembling stonework, a conduit for street lighting, sidewalks and a height adequate to accommodate a future greenway underneath. 

DOT bore the cost of these enhancements as part of a pilot program for bridge beautification, said DOT spokesman David Uchiyama. However, Jackson County and WCU agreed to jointly maintain the sidewalk, and WCU paid $82,000 for construction of additional sidewalks going up Central Drive toward campus. The project cost a total of $12.6 million including engineering, right-of-way acquisition and construction. 

 

Pleasant surprise from DOT

When the project concluded, CuRvE members took a look at the new property maps and realized that in the course of right-of-way acquisition the DOT had bought most of the property CuRvE had envisioned becoming part of the future park. What’s more, they found that DOT actually prefers to turn such surplus property over to the local government rather than maintaining ownership of it. 

“We kind of behind the scenes inquired of DOT and said, ‘What’s this process?’ and of course I’m thinking it’s going to be this big, long, involved process,” said Fariello. “And we get this email back and the response is, ‘Well, Jackson County just has to ask.’”

That’s why five members of CuRvE, including Fariello, attended a Jan. 14 county commissioners work session. Fariello recapped CuRvE’s history and its efforts in Cullowhee, especially relating to the river park, and asked commissioners to consider formally requesting the property from DOT. Commissioners agreed by consensus to ask county staff to move forward.

The land in question comprises seven parcels totaling 4.33 acres, with an additional 0.9 contiguous acres owned by WCU, which is supportive of the project. Much of that acreage is too steep for recreation, but it could certainly further CuRvE’s other goals — environmental preservation and conservation. In the long term, CuRvE hopes to see the area offer riverside features as well as in-stream amenities to increase the area’s attractiveness to paddlers. A connection to the existing 1-mile greenway beginning at Locust Creek is also part of the dream. 

But all of that will take years to develop. For now, CuRvE is advocating for a low-key phase one using the acres hopefully coming the county’s way from DOT. That first phase would likely include a landscaping plan with simple features like a parking area, path down to the river and picnic tables or benches. While water features and a boat put-in will certainly be goals to pursue in the future, for now the key is to get the ball rolling, said Fariello. 

Besides, it would be premature to start working on any in-stream amenities before a final decision is made regarding the Cullowhee Dam. Discussions about removing the aged dam have been ongoing for more than two years, but it could take years more to make a final decision and raise the money to actually do it. Both WCU and the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority have intake structures in the pool the dam creates — while removing it would likely have environmental and recreational benefits, the entities want to ensure that doing so would not adversely impact their systems’ water supply. It would also be expensive. More study is required to make a final decision, and it will take even more time to carry that decision out. 

 

out cullowhee2

The new bridge in Cullowhee features stamped and stained concrete, among other features intended to support a future river park and greenway. Donated photo

 

Wishing for a greenway connector

The Jackson County Greenway is another wild card. CuRvE and Jackson County would both like to see the greenway extended to the new bridge in Old Cullowhee, but that will be a long-term effort. Jackson County and Mainspring Conservation Trust are taking the lead on efforts to work with landowners along the approximately 2-mile stretch of riverfront between the greenway’s current terminus and the Cullowhee bridge. 

“We are currently working with the county to expand the greenway,” said Jordan Smith, land conservation manager for Mainspring. “That’s a focus of the county, and it’s of great interest to that area. We’ve had a history of working with the greenway here in Macon County, and we’d love to work with Jackson County — the county government itself as well as the residents.”

During the Jan. 14 work session, Commissioner Gayle Woody said that several property owners have already agreed to give rights-of-way or easements to the greenway, should the project someday move forward. 

“It looks like this would be a wonderful connection and enhance the use of our beautiful river,” said Woody. 

However, there are still additional agreements to be made before a continuous greenway can connect the two points. Greenway projects are notoriously tricky, involving coordination and legal agreements between many different parties. Smith was hesitant to attach a timeline to the effort.

“I hate to be vague, but I think if we work hard on it and work together, it’s something that we could realize in that timeframe,” he said when asked if would be possible to complete the connection within the next five to 10 years. 

If the existing greenway is any indication, the finished product will be extremely well used. The current mile-long path along the Tuck is really an orphan trail, beginning and ending in the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, people use it, and use it frequently. 

While the greenway was partly open throughout 2016, it wasn’t completed until July, with automatic counters logging 39,849 visits that year, said Jackson County Outdoor Recreation Manager Molly Neary. That number skyrocketed to 109,020 visits in 2017, and in 2018 the number nearly doubled to 214,944. While the counters began experiencing some technical issues in mid-summer 2019, usage between January and June of that year totaled 83,525. 

That figure could indicate a dip in visitation — during the same period in 2018, counters logged 120,000 visits — but it’s still substantial. Because counters are placed at both greenway entrances, it’s possible they could be counting some visitors twice, but they are strategically located to catch people walking between the greenway and parking lot, leaving out those who are simply looping back to the other end. 

“I see them as totally related,” Fariello said of the greenway and river park projects. 

When she envisions the future, she sees a beautiful and inviting riverside park set within a thriving community featuring locally operated restaurants and shops, with a green-shrouded walking path stretching from the bridge all the way to Locust Creek. It would be like a microcosm of the Blue Ridge itself, which boasts Shenandoah National Park to the north and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south, tied together by the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Except, in this case, it would all be in Jackson County. 

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