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The Georgia Trail Summit, the first in 15 years,

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Prophetic vision and problem solving; Georgia Trail Summit a first in 15 years


A conference of Georgians that didn’t blink at the idea of marketing bicycle tours to commemorate Sherman’s March to the Sea left no one shaking their heads about trails, not cars, fronting Georgia’s urban future.

If the ravaging of antebellum culture could be re-packaged as economic development, why not trails to free Georgia from its oath to suburban culture?

photo of people on trail with wood trestle


The Georgia Trail Summit in April was the first in 15 years. Although its 150 registrants spent less than a day and a half under the same roof, they came away convinced of trails ascendant in a future channeled through volunteerism, nonprofits, and a supportive private sector. Government would be vital, but the movement would lead.

The summit took place in Athens, a virtual city-state where arts and conservation thrive thanks to the $2 billion annual economic impact of the University of Georgia. A riverfront greenway has become a focus for off-campus housing and for visitors to the city’s convention hall two blocks away. Another 39 miles of trail will connect Athens with Union Point, in Georgia’s rural north.

However, it was trail leadership from Atlanta that shone the summit beacon. Decatur bike commuter and lifelong trails advocate Tracie Sanchez successfully launched the summit idea, organized the volunteers and agency people needed to pull it off. The nonprofit MillionMile Greenway, led by Atlantan Jim Langford, offered up the initial challenge grant funding of $5,000.

Two more nonprofit leaders juxtaposed Georgia’s past and future and made clear that the past was– well, passed. One called Atlanta “the poster child for sprawl.” Another pointed to Millennials moving to urban centers, including Atlanta, “by the millions, commuting, shopping and recreating without cars.”

photo of woman wearing bike helmet



Atlanta’s BeltLine and PATH Foundation

Ryan Gravel spoke with prophetic vision. It was he in 1999, who as an engineering doctoral student at Georgia Tech, dreamed up the Atlanta BeltLine. That’s the multi-use path in development by a public-private-nonprofit coalition that over the next 20 years will rim downtown with 33 miles of trails centered on an abandoned 22-mile rail corridor, connecting 45 in-town neighborhoods, public parks, MARTA commuter rail and the Atlanta Streetcar. As many as 10,000 on a Sunday enjoy the seven miles already in place.

“People along the route have discovered a vision better than anybody else was showing them,” Gravel said. “They’re filling it out with affordable and public housing, with arts, with farmers markets, local food, pollinators, bocce ball courts.

“People are really organizing their lives around this new corridor. It lets them live the lives they want.”

By 2015, an elevated portion of the BeltLine will run directly through the third level of the million-square-foot multi-purpose Ponce City Market that project developers emphasize will have bike valet, changing facilities and showers. They project that if 10 percent of daily visitors arrive by bike or on foot that that will represent 1,000 non-polluting commutes.

”We’re not only dramatically changing the physical form of the city and how people connect,” said Gravel, who now develops urban design solutions for Perkins+Will Global. “We’re changing our cultural expectations. This is huge for a city generally considered the poster child for sprawl. Looking ahead, it’s a different world.”

“Trails are proving as important in how we’re learning to live as the transformation of America by cars and highways was.”

Ed McBrayer, who heads the nonprofit trail-building PATH Foundation, sees young adults as Atlanta’s transforming agents. He cited data that the percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds who apply for driver licenses peaked in 1983 at 80 percent and has since fallen to 64, a timeframe in which bicycle use among the same cohort has jumped by 24 percent.

McBrayer, a one-time Colorado home-builder, called bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure “as important to new generations as highways were to our generation. The suburbs are not the happening place to be anymore!”

McBrayer runs a lean staff of five. In 23 years they’ve built 200 miles of trail, including the hugely popular Silver Comet Trail that runs for 61.5 miles from Atlanta to the Alabama line, where it continues another 33 miles as the Chief Ladiga Trail to Anniston.

By getting trails built, PATH Foundation and the Atlanta BeltLine have succeeded in attracting private sector and foundation backing for their vision. Corporate Atlanta leads trail-funding campaigns and populates nonprofit boards. Familiar supporting brands include Coca Cola, Cox Foundation, ING Direct, NIKE, Office Depot, Rollins and Turner Broadcasting. In a current campaign, PATH has successfully raised $14.33 million to build 37 more miles of trail.

Not everyone was there

Georgia DOT was invited, yet didn’t attend the summit, and only the host regional planning commission, the Northeast Georgia, among the state’s 12 played a leading role. Staff represented others. Economic development was represented only by state and regional tourism managers, whose chief interest was marketing trail use to people who stay overnight. Robyn Elliott, who operates Georgia Bicycle Tours, did report on tourism grants to extend her tours to mid-state’s Antebellum Trail and to Sherman’s trail of ruin. Few others represented trail-based businesses.

Yet the clear value of the summit showed in consensus about next moves. John Devine, senior planner at the Northeast Georgia Commission, and a summit host city organizer, led a visioning session that asked three questions: How often should a Georgia Trail Summit happen? What do advocates need to support their trail-building work apart from future summits? If Georgia needs a statewide trail organization, should this be a government agency, a new statewide 501(c)(3) nonprofit, or an already existing nonprofit?

Challenges and opportunities

Challenges and opportunities were summed up this way:


As Jim Langford put it, “What’s happening in Atlanta is going to happen all across Georgia. Heroes are coming out of the woodwork. ‘Be bold,’” he added quoting Canadian spiritualist Basil King, “and mighty forces will come to your aid.”


Herb Hiller is Southeast Region Program Coordinator for the East Coast Greenway Alliance.


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