A new greenway stretches behind the homes and shops of the Antiquity neighborhood in Cornelius. At the trailhead is a large, elevated walkway that slopes down to a paved, half-mile trail. Eileen Hume and her husband, Darin, were taking a morning walk on the trail recently.
“We kind of watched them build this, and this is absolutely beautiful, but I’m not for sure the official name of it. But it is lovely," Hume said.
It’s officially called the Antiquity Greenway, but it’s part of a much bigger vision, called the Carolina Thread Trail. The Trail would go as far north as Statesville, and as far south as Great Falls in Chester County, South Carolina. And it would roughly stretch west to east from Shelby to Albemarle. The goal is to have approximately 1,600 miles of trails that wind through 15 counties.
Bret Baronak is the Carolina Thread Trail's project director who coordinates its master plan for those 15 counties. Not long ago, he was poring over half a dozen maps that show different greenway projects.
"It provides a wide-ranging level of opportunity for different types of trails, whether you’re a hiker or a biker. And it’s just a collective effort of communities," Baronak said.
That collective effort, according to Baronak, has produced 21.6 miles of new greenways this year. That brings the Carolina Thread Trail to approximately 286 miles of greenway, or 18% of the 1,600 mile goal. The Trail project also includes an additional 170 miles of designated blueways, which are waterways with access points for kayaking.
“2019 was the most mileage that I’ve seen put on the ground in one year," Baronak noted. "But you know, these trails take time. So, sometimes what you’ll see is a pattern where one year it’s more of a construction year, and then another year, those trails under construction are opened.”
In fact, 2019 saw more miles opened than 2018, 2017, and 2016 combined. The last record year was 2014, when 17 miles opened.
And Baronek expects to see another 20 miles open in the next two to three years, mostly in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties. Those counties have large trails already in progress - Mecklenburg's Cross Charlotte Trail, and Gaston's South Fork River Corridor, both of which are part of the Carolina Thread Trail.
The Carolina Thread Trail’s map shows a lot of greenways that appear as “islands.” They’re open, but they’re not connected to any other segments. Bart Landess is executive director of the Carolina Thread Trail. He’s heard comments about the trails not being connected.
“There are places where you can actually see where the trail picks up," Landess said. "And so, sometimes people will sort of volunteer to make a trail with their feet. But it can be tough, because again, there’s a whole bunch of different folks operating here.”
Each of the 15 counties in the region adopted the Carolina Thread Trail’s master plan starting in 2007. But getting the trails built is another issue. That’s where the Carolina Thread Trail organization comes in. It provides advice, grant funding and technical assistance to local governments. But elected officials decide which trail segments they’ll fund and build. That leads to “islands” of greenways in the network.
Landess acknowledged this setup slows trail building. But he says officials see the benefits of trails that have already opened. Landess points to benefits that trails can have on tourism, as well as users’ health and social well-being. And these trails establish protected green spaces in the Charlotte region, which will continue to urbanize rapidly over the next decade. Landess says those benefits will become more apparent as new trails open.
“The biggest thing is to recognize that all of these connections are going to be made," he emphasized. "It’s very difficult to see this project as a singular project, until those connections are made. And so, it’s just mentally hard to think of it as one thing, when it’s right now in so many pieces.”
It’s an ambitious vision, but it’s also a slog. At 20 miles a year, the trail won’t be done until the year 2086. But Landess is optimistic that towns will set aside more money as it grows in length and popularity.
You can find trails near you on the Carolina' Thread Trail's interactive web map.