By: Jon White, Program Coordinator, Davidson Impact Fellow ’19-’20
When the beauty of the forest trail or the unexpected peace of a greenway feels timeless it can be easy to take our natural spaces for granted, but everything has a history. When I started my one year fellowship with the Carolina Thread Trail, I was curious about how an organization with such a broad reach (15 counties) and mammoth ambitions (currently 280 out of 1,600 miles are on the ground) got its start.
So as I found myself largely home-bound in the past few months due to the limitations of Covid-19, I set out to do a little research. Though the Carolina Thread Trail was founded only thirteen years ago in 2007, many of the early leaders of the Thread Trail project have retired or moved on, and I reasoned that now is an important time to document the early years of an organization that is likely to be around for a long time, before these details are lost forever. Fortunately, I was able to track down a few of the key players for interviews, and stir up the archive of old documents, reports, and photos.
What emerged is a story not just of one organization, but of a region attempting to chart a new course toward sustainable development, equipped with an emerging mentality of conservation, and led by a handful of visionary community leaders from various ranks of the corporate, municipal, and non-profit worlds.
In the series to come, we’ll track the Carolina Thread Trail’s history from its inception as the seed of an idea amidst discussion about environmentalism and regionalism in the Charlotte area, to its establishment under the wing of the Catawba Lands Conservancy and beyond. My hope is that by the end of this series, you’ll see more clearly the innovation that a regional trail network is for our 15-county region, and the larger movement towards connectivity and conservation of which it is only a part.
Before diving into the history, however, it may be helpful to describe in greater detail what the Carolina Thread Trail does in the day to day as an organization.
What We Do
The Carolina Thread Trail was founded in 2007 as a project of the Catawba Lands Conservancy. Though they are two separate organizations, they share the same office, and most of the staff work for both the Thread Trail and the Conservancy, including myself. This arrangement was an innovation in the way trail organizations and land trusts work together, and consolidated expertise in both areas under one roof.
The Thread Trail and the Catawba Land Conservancy’s mission overlap in conserving land and connecting lives to nature, but the Carolina Thread Trail exists to serve a distinct and specific role in accomplishing its vision for a 1,600 mile regional trail network.
The Carolina Thread Trail was responsible for working with each municipality to design the Thread Trail master plan from a grassroots level. The trail design needed to serve the needs of each individual community, yet it also needed to connect into a comprehensive system. A regional trail network necessarily crosses political boundaries, and the Thread Trail serves as a coordinator between different municipalities to educate about the many benefits of trails, and to make sure that each greenway segment actually lines up with the piece in the next town and county over. In a time when it is easy for governments to become siloed in addressing their particular needs, the staff of the Thread Trail facilitates collaboration by bringing the important stakeholders to the same table. 15-county master plan is now complete, but it’s a living document, and amendments need to be made as community needs change, which always happens from the ground up.
Second, the Carolina Thread Trail awards grant funding to each county to bring the trail to the community. The Thread Trail provides catalytic funding that allows municipalities to apply for larger sums from state and federal agencies. The Thread Trail began with over $6 million to distribute across the region, contributed mostly by corporate partners, and we are currently working on another capital campaign to replenish these funds for the next decade.
Lastly, the Thread Trail makes sure that the local community receives the full benefits of the trail network by maximizing community engagement with the Thread Trail project. As program coordinator, I host 6-8 free public programs per month at various Thread Trail segments, ranging from nature hikes to urban bike rides. We also host a National Trails Day festival in early June to celebrate and increase awareness of our outdoor space, and a one-day conference in December called Trail Forum to facilitate coordination among the regional implementation partners and share expertise. If you want to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the implementation of the master plan, join us for one of our bi-monthly Trails on Tap events at a local brewery. For the trails themselves, we design and distribute signs so that everyone who walks on a Thread Trail segment will be aware that it is a part of the Thread Trail network. Of course, we also stay active on social media to highlight trails and share news. Follow our Instagram or Facebook pages to stay up to date!
You may notice that one thing the Carolina Thread Trail does not do is build and maintain all of the trail ourselves. This is true, and it’s exactly how we intended it. Besides the fact that managing 1,600 miles of trail would be a massive undertaking beyond the scope of our organization, we know that in order for the trail network to be sustainable across 15 counties, it must be owned, built, and operated at a local level, whether that be the town government, a local land trust, or a neighborhood association. And that’s where the Carolina Thread Trail seeks to serve the community- by creating a regional system that gives communities the tools to rediscover and reinvest in their own outdoor resources.