ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — Two Tweetsie Trail extension advocates described their feelings identically Tuesday after learning Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee was recommending $6.3 million of state funds to make the extension a reality.
“I’m just thrilled to have this opportunity,” said Carter County mayor Patty Woodby, who has worked to secure a Tweetsie Trail extension through a rugged section of the county for a few years.
Former county Parks and Recreation chairman and longtime cyclist Ken Gough has hoped for the Valley Forge to Hampton connector since 2008.
“Thrilled beyond words,” Gough said. “This has been a dream that we have had going back many, many years and to see the potential for it to come to fruition is just wonderful.”
Provided the General Assembly keeps the request intact, the funds will be sufficient to grade a couple of miles of trail from the end of Mill Pond Road in Valley Forge through a rugged section of the former railroad, cross the Doe River on a replica bridge and take the trail through its first tunnel.
“This section will go into the mountains and will be the most beautiful section of the trail by far,” said Gough, who represented Elizabethton on the Tweetsie Trail Task Force as Johnson City took a lead in creating the first 11 miles of trail. That section has some very pretty stretches but ends near Snap On Tools at Hatcher Lane — a couple of miles before the narrow gauge rail line plunged into the rugged terrain just before Hampton.
Woodby said she’s been trying to “change the conversation about Carter County” during her still-brief tenure as mayor. She said telling the county’s story is the best way to do that.
“Today, with the news that’s coming down from Nashville, our story’s a best-seller,” Woodby said, referring also to a $40 million investment to expand Elizabethton’s Tennessee Center for Applied Technology.
Woodby said she pitched the trail funding again in late 2022 and early this year after the request didn’t make it into Lee’s fiscal 2023 budget. She and a team that includes Elizabethton Parks and Recreation Director Mike Mains, Southern Off Road Biking Association (SORBA Tri-Cities) trail builder Wes Bradley and others have sent project manuals, put together PowerPoints and generally just kept knocking.
“I’ve kept on and kept on and kept on,” Woodby said with a smile. “Very persistent.”
She and Gough also agreed on the trail expansion’s potential to be an economic boon.
“This is a great opportunity for tourism, recreation and economic development all in one bundle,” Woodby said.
The money will also fund about $2 million to complete the final two phases of an expansion at the Hampton Watershed mountain bike trail complex. The land, owned by Elizabethton, saw its network extended to about six miles with the first expansion phase last year led by Bradley and other SORBA volunteers.
The expansions there will include another five miles of trail — creating one of the largest parks in the region and the biggest elevation change in Northeast Tennessee — along with a bike pump track and “skills park.”
SORBA’s Bradley had a similar reaction to Woodby and Gough when she told him Monday night the funding was recommended.
“We’re ecstatic,” he said. “This is literally a game-changer for Elizabethton, Carter County and the surrounding region.”
Bradley said the expanded Tweetsie will be a “recreational artery” for the region, with a trail from the summit of Cedar Mountain (the expanded Hampton Watershed park), through Hampton to the Tweetsie, to Johnson City and up to another mountain bike park atop Tannery Knobs.
“If we pull this off, it has the potential to be a major tourist attraction for all of Northeast Tennessee by connecting the mountain bike parks in Johnson City and Hampton,” Gough said. “We have the potential of making Elizabethton/Carter County a mountain biking destination for all of the eastern United States.”
The money, which would become available when the new budget year starts July 1, will allow leaders to place their preferred bridge — a replica of the original structural steel “Howe” truss bridge — straight down onto the still-structurally sound bridge abutments. Woodby said getting to that point could have taken years without the state aid.
“The expense was so much, we were just kind of piecemealing it,” she said.
Now, she hopes the project can be completed within about a year-and-a-half after funds become available. For his part, Bradley said he’s already called the trail builders, designers and structural engineers who will make the plans a reality.
“They’re just as stoked as we are,” he said.
Bradley said that’s the reaction of nearly anyone who actually walks or bikes the accessible but rough route, including area state representatives John Holtsclaw and Scotty Campbell and State Senator Rusty Crowe.
“They’ll be our greatest advocates on the legislative level,” Bradley said. “Anybody who ever has questions about it, I say ‘come take a hike with me and I’ll take you through there,’ and afterward they say, ‘oh, I get it.’”
Gough said he’s really looking forward to riding the route once it’s accessible to even the less intrepid.
“I know it is going to be a while, but it can’t come soon enough.”