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Organizers: New trail could have multi-million-dollar impact on Carolinas

Krys Merryman //October 23, 2023

Organizers: New trail could have multi-million-dollar impact on Carolinas

Krys Merryman //October 23, 2023

Proponents of the Saluda Grade Trail say it will be a boost to the local economy while preserving the vistas it runs through. (Photo/Provided)A group of Spartanburg nonprofit organizations are leading an effort to revamp 31 miles of a trail line that runs through South Carolina and North Carolina.

The Saluda Grade Trail is a new rail trail that travels through the cities of Inman, Campobello, Landrum, Tryon and Saluda, ending in the Zirconia area.

PAL (Play. Advocate. Live Well.) Spartanburg, one of the nonprofits involved in the project, has been working on trails in the urban area of Spartanburg. PAL Spartanburg was working with Norfolk Southern on a trail connection under one of their trestles when they learned that the line would be for sale. PAL, Upstate Forever and Conserving Carolina are working to make the project happen.

“I have lived in Inman my entire life. We have seen our city be busy and prosperous. The peaches, textiles and the train were the reasons why. Now the economic engine that powered all of this is back,” Inman Mayor Cornelius Huff said.

Laura Ringo, executive director of PAL Spartanburg, said the South Carolina Legislature committed $15 million toward the acquisition of the South Carolina portion of the trail and the North Carolina Legislature put $12 million toward the North Carolina portion.

“The Saluda Grade Trail will be a transformative project for our entire community,” said Huff. “The trail will be a safe and nearby opportunity for recreation and fellowship. Additionally, our downtown businesses are excited to see more visitors. For over 100 years, the railroad connected all of the cities here in this part of Spartanburg County. We look forward to working with our family in Landrum and Campobello, plus our cousins in North Carolina, to make this project a success.”

Numerous case studies of existing rail trails, as well as the proposed Saluda Grade Trail, point to substantial economic benefits of rail trails — to include the boost of small businesses in otherwise rural areas, according to PAL Spartnaburg.

Currently, the Saluda Grade Trail coalition is working on an in-depth study of the economic potential of the Saluda Grade Trail — and how it can grow the local economy in ways that protect and enhance the region’s character.

In 2021, Spartanburg County commissioned an economic impact study of the proposed Saluda Grade Trail, which found that the trail would be an economic engine in every stage of its development and a continual revenue generator for local businesses after the trail is built. This study found that: 

  • The trail’s initial construction could have $40-45.6 million in economic impact 
  • Construction of new homes and businesses along the route could have a $7.6 million impact 
  • Ongoing spending by trail users and businesses would generate $11 million in economic impact every year

Other rails trails in the Southeast are success stories, leading to economic development that supports independent business and revitalizes historic downtowns. At the same time, rail trails provide impetus to conserve scenic rural landscapes, which are a significant draw for trail visitors. 

According to the Saluda Grade Trail Conservancy, the Virginia Creeper Trail attracts 112,000 out-of-town visitors every year and 54,000 of those visitors spend at least one night in the area. Greenville’s Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail saw 530,000 visitors in 2014, of whom almost a quarter came from outside the Upstate Area. The Northern Outer Banks Trail has up to $149 million in annual economic impact and provides between 1,400-3,500 jobs.

A 2018 study by N.C. State University evaluated four multi-use paths, or greenways, across the state — the Brevard Greenway, Little Sugar Creek Greenway, American Tobacco Trail and Duck Trail. This study concluded that every dollar spent on trail construction generates $1.72 every year in local business revenue, sales tax revenue, and other benefits related to health and transportation, according to the Saluda Grade Trail Conservancy. This study found that a one-time investment of $26.7 million in the four greenways had a combined impact of:

  • $19.4 million annually in sales at businesses along the trails
  • $684,000 annually in sales and local tax revenue generated by local businesses
  • $25.7 million annually in savings due to more physical activity, less congestion and pollution, and fewer traffic injuries
  • $48.7 million in estimated business revenue from greenway construction

Ringo said they are currently conducting a feasibility study that will include recommendations on use and function of the trail. The full report will be available sometime in the first half of 2024, she added.

A survey for anyone who would like to participate in that process can be found at this link.

PAL anticipates acquiring the line by the end of 2024. The organization is going through a railbanking process that takes at least 12 months, said Ringo. After that, construction of the trail will be determined by fundraising success.

The project should be finished in five to seven years, said Ringo.

“The leadership at PAL and Upstate Forever, here in South Carolina and Conserving Carolina in North Carolina continue to be wonderful stewards for this endeavor,” said Huff. “They have laid out a clear and reasonable approach that allows for public input and needed conversations.”