In January, big changes will start to take place in Hickory. Construction on a long-awaited "City Walk" will begin four years after citizens approved a $40 million bond referendum to improve city infrastructure with the hope of attracting jobs.
Across the city, signs that read, “Future City Walk” and “Future River Walk” have sat for more than a year.
City Manager Warren Wood said he's excited to see the messages in those signs become a reality.
“Five, six years from now, Hickory is going to be transformed from a transportation perspective,” Wood said. “We’ve got a lot of exciting projects, both ours and the North Carolina Department of Transportation as well, that are going to be taking place in Hickory.”
The centerpiece of the transformation is nine miles of walking paths. They’ll connect downtown, Lenoir Rhyne University, the Hickory Crawdads minor league ballpark, Lake Hickory and even the airport.
It’s been a long wait. On top of a voter-approved $40 million bond, the city needed grants to complete the $80 million project. The last of those grants came in last week.
“So, there is a bureaucracy that goes along with this. But the other side of it is if we would have had these bond program approved and then gone out and constructed these projects right out of the gate, we would not have been able to leverage the money to get all the grant funding that we got,” Wood said. “So, the fact that it has taken four years in one sense has been a plus because we’ve been able to double what we were going to do.”
Three projects are meant to make Hickory more appealing for locals to stick around, and enticing to businesses and employees thinking of moving: The City Walk, River Walk and the Trivium Corporate Center.
Hickory is a city that was devastated by economic recession for years. Once known as part of the furniture capital of the world, Hickory was a city where factories and mills abound. Many of those buildings are still in town, but empty.
Lately, it’s been on a bit of a rebound.
International fiber company Corning Inc. moved its headquarters away from Hickory in 2016, but — just a few weeks ago — it decided to build a new $60 million department in the city.
“We’ve been through two recessions dating back to 2001 that, you know, took a toll on our region,” Wood said. “But things today are as good as I have ever seen them.”
In a city with bad sidewalks and where most things seem to be a 15-minute drive away, Hickory can feel a little disconnected. But, having the option to walk around could bring people together.
Downtown is a main focus of development. At this point, downtown Hickory isn’t a gathering place for everyone, but renovations could change that. The “City Walk” portion of the path will include an updated bridge, a connection to the university and a grassier main square.
It’s a little before noon in downtown Hickory and people are walking — some with strollers, others in and out of a nearby coffee shop.
Don Thomas is visiting Hickory for the first time — he’s from Pittsburgh.
“As a tourist and somebody who likes to walk, probably wouldn’t do the whole nine miles, but having several miles of walkway would be wonderful,” Thomas said.
Following the path will lead to what has been dubbed the “River Walk” — a suspended walkway that extends over the edge of Lake Hickory.
That section will expand public lake access, something citizens for years have been asking for.
The walking path has been a source of tension for the city — many people feel like they voted to approve an expensive tax hike and now they don’t know what the city is doing with the money.
Taylor Newton, a professor at Lenoir Rhyne University, knows the feeling. She’s excited about the project but concerned the city didn’t do enough to keep citizens in the loop.
“So, I think some people are kind of wondering what’s happening, communication maybe could’ve been a little bit better about where the project was in terms of its progress,” Newton said. “But it’s coming and it’s good.”
While the city’s goal of a new and more connected path begins in January, it’s completion will take awhile. City officials say all the projects will near completion in 2025 at the latest.