The Transylvania Times -

 
 

By Derek McKissock
News Editor 

EDAB Wants To Keep Railway – Brevard NC

 


Efforts to maintain the railway line between Transylvania and Henderson counties should continue until it’s shown it can’t be used, according to the Economic Development Advisory Board (EDAB).

The EDAB approved a motion supporting Transylvania commissioners’ current stance during its regular monthly meeting Thursday.

The board made the motion after a presentation by members of the nonprofit Friends of the Ecusta Trail (FOET), the group formed in 2009 that advocates turning the railway line into a bike/hike path.

Norfolk Southern Railroad currently owns the 18.5-mile railway line between Brevard and downtown Hendersonville. The railway line has not been operational since the closing of the Ecusta paper mill in 2002. Before trail construction could be considered, Norfolk Southern must abandon its rights to the tracks.

Hunter Marks, FOET president, said they primarily consider the rail conversion an economic development goal.

Consultants hired by FOET estimated it would cost between $1.5 million and $3.7 million to buy the railway line and between $9.9 million and $13.4 million to build the trail.

FOET anticipates funding to be a private/public venture.

Based on recent tourism numbers, the consultants estimate an immediate impact of an additional $1.54 million in tourism revenues and $134,000 sales tax revenue, along with reduced health care costs, increased property values, more jobs and investment.

FOET said it estimates all these impacts would generate roughly $9.4 million a year for the local economy

FOET argues its proposed trail is the sort of lifestyle amenity that attracts businesses like Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada and SylvanSports.

FOET says another goal is to protect the rail corridor in perpetuity.

Transferring a railroad to trail is done through “rail banking,” a process established by Congress in 1983. Rail banking allows for a voluntary agreement between railroad companies and trail agencies to use an out-of-service corridor as a multi-use trail.

Theoretically, if desired, the trail could be converted back to a railway line in the future. As of last year, nine trails had been converted back to railway lines.

If Norfolk Southern was to abandon the railway line and rail banking wasn’t pursued, the right of way and transportation corridor could be lost forever.

Chuck Edwards is a FOET member and owns several McDonald’s restaurants, including the one in Brevard.

He said attracting a large employer, like an Ecusta or DuPont, to Transylvania that would use the railway line is unlikely.

“(A trail) is the next highest best use of the property,” he said.

Edwards, Marks and fellow FOET member Chris Burns said if a business or industry could be found that would use the railway line and would provide a bigger economic impact than the proposed trail, they would get behind it.

EDAB member Dick Grey said the recent economic development analysis report by Jeannette Goldsmith indicated the importance of having a railway line in place for potential investors. Unlike Henderson County, Transylvania has only one railway line.

Henderson County, Grey said, has a stronger industrial base and lower unemployment rate than Transylvania.

“(We) need to bring in as many businesses as we can, and the only place in this county that we have that is flat land is really along the railroad tracks,” he said.

The service industry is not “job creation,” he suggested.

“We need a manufacturing base in this county,” he said.

The FOET representatives were asked about the economic impact of the 17.5-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville County, S.C.

An economic impact study is set to be released next year, they said.

EDAB member Pete Newsome said the Swamp Rabbit Trail is heavily used, but he hasn’t seen a lot a new development connected to it.

When asked about the current condition of the line between Transylvania and Henderson counties, Mark Burrows, EDAB member and county economic development director, said talks are ongoing with Norfolk Southern on what it would take to make the line operational again.

The discussion at Thursday’s meeting turned to a previous effort in the 1990s to convert the former railway line in Brevard that partly ran behind McDonald’s.

That effort failed after strong opposition from residents and the Brevard City Council.

Burrows said a “big issue” would likely be similar opposition from property owners near the current railway line, including those with right-of-way access not belonging to Norfolk Southern.

Burrows said there is also at least one manufacturer that believes it would be negatively impacted by a trail running beside its building.

After the FOET members left the meeting, Grey made a motion, which was seconded, to send a letter to commissioners supporting their position not to convert the railway line.

Before voting, EDAB members discussed the motion.

Board chairman Larry Nelson believes low-paying service industry jobs are typically generated by Rails to Trails.

Joe Wilbanks said a low-paying job is better than a “no-paying job.”

He said more research needs to be done before the board takes a firm position.

Grey said commissioners want to hold on to the railway line for “opportunities” that may come along.

Brevard Councilman Charlie Landreth said all “options” should remain open.

Parker Platt urged the county to do everything it can to make sure the railway corridor stays open, regardless if a trail is located there or not.

Linda Coye asked what size of business would it take for Norfolk Southern to get the railway line operational again.

Burrows said an answer to that question is currently being examined. Burrows suggested amending Grey’s motion to say the EDAB supports the commissioners’ position for the railway line to remain in place for now.

The motion was approved unanimously.

Nelson said Oskar Blues, which is located beside the railway line in Brevard, has indicated it would like to double its capacity in the future and views the line as a possible transportation avenue. He also noted that Sierra Nevada, which will open a brewery in Henderson county, also wanted a railway line when it was looking for a site.

He said railway line could be used to bring goods into the county in the future and be used as a hub to distribute countywide.