Prior to 2012, Anniston, Alabama, was about as far away from a mountain bike destination as a community could get. Located in the northeast quadrant of the state at the southernmost tip of the Appalachians, Anniston was mostly remembered as the site of one of the most high-profile environmental injustices in the nation. Between 1929 and 1972, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported that biotech giant Monsanto released more than 98 million pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into Anniston’s waterways and landfills.
Such widespread contamination tainted not only the health of Anniston’s now 20,000-odd residents (a population that has been on the decline since it peaked around 33,000 in the 1960s) but also the public image of this bucolic Appalachian community. In 1999, the town was dealt another near-fatal blow when an important employer and economic driver, Fort McClellan, closed. Anniston’s future was looking bleak.
“That set the city back quite a bit,” said Anniston Director of Planning and Economic Development Toby Bennington. “Suddenly the city was forced to start looking at different ways to enhance its economic base.”
Anniston local and longtime cyclist Mike Poe always envisioned that mountain biking could be one of those economic opportunities, but it wasn’t until it landed in his lap that he believed his vision could become reality. In early 2000, Poe received a call from the Forever Wild Land Trust, an Alabama organization dedicated to creating nature preserves and recreation areas that are owned and managed by the state. Forever Wild had recently acquired Coldwater Mountain, an undeveloped 4,000-acre piece of property that adjoins downtown Anniston. The group told Poe that they were interested in creating multiuse trails on Coldwater.
With the help of Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association (NEABA) volunteers, including Poe, Forever Wild opened a few crudely constructed trails in the mid 2000s. The going was slow. Changes in local leadership put the trail project on the back burner, and for the next decade, progress at Coldwater stalled.
Then, in 2007, the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) caught wind of Coldwater and the potential to turn Anniston into the Southeast’s only mountain-based International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) Ride Center. With the help of IMBA and SORBA, under both of which NEABA is an official chapter, the prospect of utilizing mountain biking as an economic boon suddenly seemed more legitimate to city leaders.
To date, the Coldwater project has received more than one million federal dollars in Recreational Trails Program (RTP) grants and another million dollars from the city itself. The first 10 miles of trail opened in 2012 and one year later, IMBA designated Coldwater Mountain as a Bronze Level Ride Center. An additional 25 miles of trail have been constructed since, with a projected total of almost 70 miles on Coldwater alone. Last October, the McClellan Development Authority announced it would allocate another $600,000 to build two six-mile loops on the old fort property, one of which will be a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA)-certified course.
“This trail system has really united our community,” said Mike Poe. “I hear people say that cycling is what’s going to bring [Anniston] back. I’ve got 70-year-old Kiwanis Club members so excited about this project to the point that they’ve adopted a pump track and they don’t even ride bikes.”
“You either have to create something to sell that brings money in, or you have to bring people in to spend money,” said NEABA Director Tom Nelson. “To even get businesses to relocate here, you have to have a certain quality of life. So in a way, these trails are doing both.”
In 2014, Jacksonville State University released an economic impact study that proves money—an estimated $2 million annually—is indeed coming into the city thanks to the Coldwater trails. That increase in mountain bike tourism has not gone unnoticed by Anniston’s businesses. Once considered an elite road-bike shop, Wig’s Wheels has expanded its rental offerings to accommodate the influx of visiting mountain bikers. Even boutique hotels like Hotel Finial are catering to mountain bikers by installing bike wash stations and rooms with bike storage.
In the wake of large-scale industry and population decline, Appalachian communities big and small are, like Anniston, looking to outdoor recreation for hope. Located in the heart of Southwest Virginia’s coal country, the town of Norton has already built nine miles of a projected 30-mile mountain bike trail system in Flag Rock Recreation Area. In 2017, the New River Gorge Trail Alliance (NRGTA) in Fayetteville, West Virginia, received close to $2 million in funding through Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER grants to build and connect the Southern West Virginia Bike Trail Network. Once complete, the first phase of the network will total more than 300 miles in length across three counties and include a mixture of rail-trail, singletrack and gravel roads.
“This movement of Appalachian towns leveraging what they have and using the terrain and the landscape makes sense,” said SORBA Director Tom Sauret. “Mountain biking is a cheap date compared to other sorts of infrastructure.”
Baseball fields and city parks aside, even other bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, such as paved greenways, can make for a hefty investment. According to American Trails, constructing one mile of asphalt trail can range from about $150,000 to nearly $300,000. But to build one mile of singletrack, IMBA Trail Solutions estimates it takes between $21,000 and $63,000.
“Trails used to be seen as something communities had to ‘deal’ with,” added IMBA Trail Solutions Director of Construction and Operations Rich Edwards. “Trails now are seen as the 21st-century version of ball fields. If you don’t have a mountain bike trail system, you’re probably not part of the 21st century. It’s like not having a dog park.”
Unfortunately for communities, building trail systems can be time-consuming, tedious and costly. It takes the initiative and support of a dream team of community members, elected officials and land managers to not only get the funding to make trails happen but to keep the momentum moving forward. According to Edwards, trail projects can take as little as 12 months to as long as 10 years to go from concept to creation.
“Trails now are seen as the 21st-century version of ball fields. If you don’t have a mountain bike trail system, you’re probably not part of the 21st century. It’s like not having a dog park.” —Rich Edwards
For the NRGTA in Fayetteville, winning the grant to build and connect existing trails was the easy part. Getting access to those funds and actually building those trails, however, has proved challenging. With the exception of hiring two full-time contract positions for the 30-month duration of the grant, progress on the project has flatlined in the past year. West Virginia Department of Highways (DOH), the basic agency that administers and manages NRGTA’s grant, is scrambling to stay on track now that the state has approved a $2 billion investment in road infrastructure improvements. A $1.4 million trail project, by comparison, is a lower priority.
“We were hoping once we got these grants that we’d have boots on the ground building trails all over the place, but it’s gotten clogged up in the administrative vacuum of the DOH,” said NRGTA board member Gene Kistler. The DOH did not respond to a request for an interview.
In the event that construction on the Southern West Virginia Bike Trail Network has not started or been contracted out 18 months from when the grant was initially awarded, the DOH will have to file for an extension. For NRGTA and the rest of the Fayetteville outdoor community, the frustrating cycle of hurry up and wait is getting tiresome.
“Any time you’re dealing with any government agency it moves slower than any private entity wants to go,” said Sam Chaber, the trail maintenance manager for the project. “There’s a lot of red tape that needs to be followed and gets in the way.”
About 200 miles southwest of Fayetteville, Johnson City, Tennessee, has endured only two years of red tape to complete the five-mile trail system and accompanying bike park at Tannery Knobs. That relatively short turnaround was made possible by the fact that the land was privately owned and that funding came exclusively from the city. Set to open in early 2019, Tannery Knobs is slated to be just one of the many mountain bike trail systems in Johnson City. The city has already contracted IMBA Trail Solutions to conduct a feasibility study on Buffalo Mountain, which is a 725-acre municipal park overlooking downtown.
“Decide who you want to be and then go be it on purpose,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, quoting Dolly Parton. “Who do we want to be? We want to be the mountain bike mecca of the South. You can’t build mountains, but lucky for us, we already have them. We’re just taking a smarter approach to utilizing the assets we have here.”
To be clear, trail creation is just one piece of a much larger puzzle made of other infrastructure projects and economic initiatives unfolding in Appalachia right now. But whether its impact is seen on the local economy or community wellness, mountain bike trails are undoubtedly renewing Appalachia’s pride of place.
“Mountain biking is not a silver bullet,” says Rich Edwards of IMBA Trail Solutions. “We used to say if we build the trails they will come. We realize now that’s a little immature. If you build great trails, there’s a decent chance they will come, but if you build great trails and link that to the community culture, then you’ll have a success on your hands.”