Someday, boosters hope, the East Coast Greenway will be a bicycle version of the Appalachian Trail: a challenging bucket-list adventure that pulls in participants from all over the world. Its advocates envision a linear park of three thousand miles of protected trail stretching from Calais, Maine, to Key West, the longest bike trail in the country—and one that passes through the heart of the Triangle.
Right now, though, the East Coast Greenway is a plan on a map that is only one-third completed; most of the greenway currently uses bike-friendly streets rather than separate bike paths. That's not true here, though. The Triangle is the most-completed metro area along the path, containing almost seventy-five miles of bike trails.
On October 1–3, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, a nonprofit that's helping drive the development of the path, is holding its Southeast Summit at the Durham Convention Center. The event will gather more than 250 planners, policymakers, and elected officials to look at the Triangle's success and figure out how to replicate it across the South.
From a recreation and transportation perspective, the greenway has been a huge boon to this area; cyclists can travel from northern Durham to eastern Raleigh and barely have to worry about cars.
The benefits are quantifiable, too: this weekend, the alliance will release a report showing that the trail's economic benefit to the region runs into the high eight figures, including eight hundred jobs and millions of dollars added to property values. Certainly the trail, and others like it, attracts young professionals with money in their pockets; in its recently announced search for a second headquarters, Amazon mentioned the existence of bike paths on its wish list.
But this is a wealthy region with a wide revenue base, and while those benefits are great, they're not critical. The same can't be said for some of the rural areas that the trail runs through—counties like Cumberland, Bladen, and Pender, which haven't fully recovered from the loss of traditional economic drivers like tobacco and textiles. The development of a national transportation corridor that will bring millions of visitors to those regions annually could be a game changer for these local economies.
"This ribbon of off-road greenway will bring more people to Oxford, Fayetteville, Wilmington, and all the smaller towns between," says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director of the East Coast Greenway Alliance. "It will be great for parts of North Carolina that aren't booming."
It's tourism: riders on the trail will need places to sleep and eat and get their bikes fixed. It could be a windfall for entrepreneurs who decide to rent out their houses as Airbnb units or expand their restaurant menus.
A 2007 article in the journal Tourism Economics estimated that tourists on the Virginia Creeper Trail, a thirty-four-mile bike path in rural southwestern Virginia, spent roughly $1.2 million annually in the area; that money generated another $1.6 million in total economic activity.
Tourism, though, is a simple word for something that could be a little more sophisticated.
"I think the East Coast Greenway is all about placemaking," says Chuck Flink, one of the nation's leading greenway planners. He lives in Durham and has been involved with the East Coast Greenway since 2006; he'll be giving a keynote speech at the summit on Sunday.
He likes to talk about the "experience economy," in which individuals' desire to take part in memorable activities can be harnessed to propel an economy. "It goes hand in glove [with the greenway]: that authentic experience of place is what people are really seeking and are willing to spend money on," he says. "And North Carolina has it in spades."
He points to Vivian Howard, who—with her Kinston restaurant and accompanying PBS television show, A Chef's Life—has singlehandedly revived a depressed region by highlighting the area's unique culture and cuisine.
By the same token, entrepreneurs in Bladen County, for example, could call attention to the county's unique geological formations, known as Carolina Bay lakes, as well as some of the area's indigenous food, wine, and history.
Some folks in Bladen County are aware of this possibility.
"We would like to have ecotourism here, and this fits nicely in that," says Eddie Madden, town manager of Elizabethtown. "We're doing everything we can to make it a reality here." His town is building trails to connect with the East Coast Greenway, and so is neighboring town White Lake.
But not many people in the rural counties know about the greenway. And state policymakers and planners often seem uninterested in its potential. Officials at the N.C. Department of Transportation, as well as at state-funded economic development and tourism organizations, have barely heard of it.
That's sad, because the biggest barrier to the path becoming a reality and aiding these counties is, unsurprisingly, funding. The trail doesn't come cheap. The alliance staff estimates it'll take another $2.5 or $3 billion to get it completely off-road.
Most of its funding comes from the federal government through various programs, some of which are threatened under the Trump administration. In particular, a funding mechanism known as TIGER has supported the greenway in the past but is scheduled to be eliminated in budgets put forth by both Trump and the House.
And federal funding usually requires a 20 percent nonfederal match. But in 2013, North Carolina eliminated the state match for bicycle and pedestrian projects. That loss particularly affects rural towns and counties, which can't easily pass bond or sales-tax referendums or leverage deep-pocketed philanthropists to fill the gap.
In Bladen County, some trails are being built with local parks and recreation dollars and a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In other places, like Granville County, planners are still in the very early stages of gaining ownership over the right-of-way easements where the trail will lie.
It's a long game—but one that could, in time, help rural North Carolina move from the old economy into the new one.