Johnny Mack Morrow believes a system of bike trails could produce the same economic boom for Mississippi that the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail has for Alabama.
“To me it’s an enterprise that can change the future of Mississippi,” he said.
Morrow, a former longtime Alabama legislator who now works at Mississippi State University, was part of a group that gathered in Greenwood Wednesday to get the latest update on the effort to convert an abandoned rail line into a 92-mile biking and hiking trail from Greenwood to West Point.
Wilson Carroll, a Greenwood native and Vicksburg attorney, says he is more optimistic than ever that the vision he has been advocating for 14 years will materialize, now that a team of professionals has joined the effort.
The Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, a federal agency that promotes cultural resources in four of the six counties along the proposed bike trail, recently got on board.
It is providing the funding to produce feasibility and economic impact studies for the project, the first step toward seeking federal grants to heavily bankroll the effort.
Carroll described as a “godsend” the initial call he received from Kent Bain, project coordinator for the national heritage area.
“I knew instantly I was dealing with a man who had knowledge and experience and money to spend to help make this a reality,” said Carroll, president of the nonprofit C&G Rail Trail Coalition.
Normally, the federal match on a rails-to-trails conversion would be 80%. There is a four-year window of opportunity, however, to receive 100% federal funding for some of the project’s roughly estimated $30 million cost through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted by Congress in 2021, said Russ Bryan, a landscape architect with the engineering firm Neel-Schaffer.
Neel-Schaffer is expected to handle the feasibility study. The Jackson-based firm has been involved in Mississippi’s two existing rails-to-trails conversions. It did engineering work for the Longleaf Trace in the southern part of the state. Is it presently working on a proposed 20-mile extension of the Tanglefoot Trail in northeast Mississippi.
The C&G Rail Trail would be more than twice the current length of those two trails and one of the longest in the Southeast, according to Carroll.
He and others have been in regular discussions with Genesee & Wyoming, the owner of the former Columbus & Greenville railroad line, about purchasing the dilapidated and long-unused eastern half of the line that once intersected the state. He said Genesee & Wyoming continues to show a willingness if the C&G Rail Trail Coalition can come up with the money.
“We’re a willing buyer. They’re a reluctant seller, but they’re going to sell because they can’t do anything else with it,” Carroll said.
Wednesday’s gathering was hosted by Carroll and Richard Beattie, a biking enthusiast who has been the principal organizer of Greenwood’s Bikes, Blues & Bayous ride. The meeting included representatives not only from Greenwood but also from Maben, Mathiston, Eupora and Starkville.
Several spoke of the aesthetic, economic and recreational benefits that the C&G Rail Trail would bring.
Cecil Simmons, a retired Mississippi lawmaker who lives in Mathiston, said he interacts frequently with the medical community since his wife is a physician. He believes doctors and hospitals would get behind the project because of its potential to address the state’s high rates of obesity, hypertension and other ailments.
“The big thing now is preventive medicine,” he said. “No medicine will do what walking a mile a day wouldn’t do better for you.”
Ashley Farmer, the interim executive director of the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau, was excited about the potential of what she heard.
“Once this starts, I think Carrollton Avenue, Johnson Avenue, all that could be redeveloped,” she said.
“I’m not a biker, but this might make me start biking.”
Carroll expects the project will continue to face opposition from some landowners along the rail line, who either are hoping they will acquire the property themselves or are apprehensive about hikers and cyclists coming near the owners’ land and homes, he said. Carroll got a cold reception when he presented the rails-to-trails plan early on to a group of fellow Carroll County landowners. He said it will take a large grassroots effort to overcome the naysayers.
“We are going to have to fight them with enormous numbers of people, getting people all up and down this entire length to sign petitions and turn out when we have public meetings,” he said. “There’s a lot of politics involved in getting these things done.”
Both Carroll and Bryan, the landscape architect, cautioned that the rails-to-trails conversion could take another decade or two to complete. Bryan said federal funding, even if it can be secured in what is a highly competitive process, might only be awarded in stages.
“We understand it may not be possible to fund it all in one big bite,” acknowledged Carroll. “We’d love to try that, but we’re prepared to do it in segments if that’s the way it has to be done.”
- Contact Tim Kalich at 662-581-7243 or firstname.lastname@example.org.