Tourism Benefits Encourage Closing Trail Links in Florida

East Coast Greenway Alliance helps drive Florida and Georgia trail planning and development.

by Herb Hiller, regional program consultant, East Coast Greenway Alliance

One of these vital organizations is the East Coast Greenway Alliance, which funded a bi-state Florida-Georgia office in 2006 to help drive regional and state trail programs. Alliance strategy draws on non-traditional partners by channeling people’s desire for trails near home to free up their sense of can-do and let’s-do. As part of a new broad national agenda, the Alliance is reviving regard for that forgotten high school subject of civics, of the privileges and responsibilities of citizens.

Efforts led by the Alliance include

  • As part of plans to build a new section of a 260-mile loop trail, a move to revive rural north Florida’s town of Hastings and its popular Cabbage and Potato Festival given up in 2003 for lack of volunteers.
  • Water taxi service that last year replaced 30 miles of sub-standard Georgia-Florida bi-state route that also re-connects two historic river towns after a lapse of nearly a century.
  • Wildflowers that a half-millennium ago gave the continent one of its first Spanish names— La Florida— newly inspire a trails partnership that is helping economically-battered Titusville overcome its dependence on the ups and downs of space funding.

County by county— almost town by town— greenway advocates are following the grass roots Alliance strategy to adapt the 3,000-mile vision of the East Coast Greenway to connect some 800 miles of spine route and additional alternate routes through Florida.

photo credit: Herb Hiller
Map check for an East Central Regional Rail Trail section of the Loop between Volusia and Brevard counties

Map check for an East Central Regional Rail Trail section of the Loop between Volusia and Brevard counties

Who knew that trails could make such things happen?

Of course trail advocates knew, but it’s the mix of vision and practicality that is intriguing public administrators in eight northeast Florida counties. They are looking to trails for cost-efficient and popular answers to problems that have challenged convention.

Rail trails and wildflowers

With its emphasis on wildflowers, the Florida-Spain Quincentennial is fast-driving completion of the 260-mile five-county River to the Sea Loop through one of the state’s regions of wildflower profusion. Trails have already helped revive the economies of Florida towns, including the Pinellas Trail in Dunedin, and the West Orange Trail in Winter Garden.

Representative John L. Mica, who represents Florida’s 7th Congressional District, ranks the Loop “in the forefront of trail programs that improve how Americans live.” In a letter marking Florida’s best trails state honor, Mica declared, “I am fully committed to working with the county and state officials and with my colleagues in national office to complete this trail, paved and off-road, by 2013.”

Mica was echoing the commitment between backers of the Loop and the Florida Wildflower Foundation to make wildflowers a signature feature of north Florida trails and to introduce wildflower tourism comparable to fall colors up north. North Florida has remained more rural than the rest of the state. Now the idea is doubly to represent the region for its recreational and touring beauty. Visitors drawn to rural places for such enjoyment easily respond to the priorities of conservation and culture.

photo credit: Herb Hiller
A compacted dirt section near New Smyrna Beach

A compacted dirt section near New Smyrna Beach

One plan calls for Bike Florida, the state’s premier touring organization (led by Linda Crider, Florida recipient of AT’s 2008 State Trail Advocacy Award) to operate an annual mass tour of the Loop during fall wildflower season and an additional tour during spring wildflower season in 2010.

Advocates want wildflowers to dress up the corridor through Hastings, and in Titusville, where officials and a bona fide NASA astronaut turned out to welcome the inaugural tour of the Loop. The newly-acquired 52-mile East Central Regional Rail Corridor has its start-finish point three blocks from a landmark seafood restaurant, whose owner is driving Titusville’s Loop connection. Once hyped as the City of Chrome and Steel,

Titusville now looks to wildflowers and trails. Its new mayor rode his bike the two longest days of the inaugural tour. Indeed, Titusville trail backers showed how the tail of the rail-trail corridor could also become looped through the Merritt Island National Seashore to keep cyclists from having to re-trace any part of the route. Bike Florida right away adopted the change.

Water and trail connections

An additional Greenway strategy last summer led to the launch of the Cumberland Sound Ferry Service between St. Marys, Georgia, and Fernandina Beach, Florida. The service does more than just reconnect these historic port towns. It helps strengthen the Coastal Georgia Greenway and its close relationship with the East Coast Greenway Alliance. To feature the ferry, 14 Savannahians in January toured four northeast Florida counties to learn the best— and less than best— about how to answer typical trail policy questions. How do you strengthen political will?

What measure of advocacy can you expect from bicycle clubs or do you have to generate new advocacy partners? How do you work with developers on major projects, with real estate boards, with the fitness community? How do you promote safe use of rail trails through depressed neighborhoods?

Savannahians on the tour— the Savannah-Northeast Florida Workshop on Wheels, or the WOW— are now helping policy makers understand that touring cyclists aren’t people who can’t afford cars but instead represent banking, medicine, the clergy, and development interests who champion the health and quality of life benefits of cycling. Host chairman for the WOW was David Strickland, vice chairman of EverBank Community Bank. Strickland appeared before the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce to propose trails as a priority comparable to long highly-regarded golf in the region.

Passenger and bicycle ferry across Ponce Inlet near the Canaveral National Seashore

Passenger and bicycle ferry across Ponce Inlet near the Canaveral National Seashore

The St. Johns River Loop

In one of its recent successful moves, the Alliance now works with the nonprofit St. Johns River Alliance. It’s chaired by John Delaney, University of North Florida President and former Jacksonville mayor. The St. Johns is one of 14 American Heritage Rivers. The river and its tributaries drain 15 east-central and northeast counties. Seven of the counties constitute to the spine route of the Greenway; another constitutes part of the Greenway’s alternate route, which incorporates the entire Loop.

The River Alliance seeks to protect the St. Johns, which faces new threat from developers who pressure water managers to disrupt river ecology by tapping its flow. Although the river was the route of Florida’s first tourists 150 years ago, few have come since rail, and then cars and planes, replaced water as the favored means to reach Florida’s fabled winter warmth. Now the plan is to re-position the St. Johns as Florida’s first region for eco-vacationing. The River Alliance wants to establish a combined greenway and blueway the 310-mile length of the river.

The Loop concept has expanded to encompass two loops which will overlap between the old river town of Palatka and historic St. Augustine. The pair of overlapping loops will create a figure eight trail running 400 miles through large cities and ghost towns, through rural areas and wilderness. The chair of the St. Johns County Commission rode five days of the inaugural tour of the Loop. Additional champions include elected officials in all four remaining counties.

The north Florida focus of the Greenway Alliance has not led it to overlook southern counties. The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council (TCRPC) leads a new Greenway Alliance-sponsored initiative through four spine route counties. In southeast Florida, the two most populous counties have so far have been the slowest to come around. Plans under consideration for fall 2010 would schedule meetings of the Alliance Trail Council and its board in these areas of the TCRPC that could help promote development of the Loop.

So far in Florida, the Alliance has enjoyed the wind at its back.

About the Author

Herb Hiller is a founder of the Florida bicycling and Florida bed-and-breakfast movements. He is the state’s leading voice for ecotourism. He serves the East Coast Greenway Alliance as its regional program consultant for Florida and Georgia.

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