From Rails to Trails: How the Firefly Trail aims to connect communities throughout rural Georgia

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For nearly a century, the steady rumble of Georgia Railroad trains hummed along rural tracks between Athens and Union Point in Greene County. In the darkness, sparks of glowing embers billowed from the smokestacks along the state’s first chartered railroad, leading local observers to refer to the historic rail line as “The Firefly.”

But the last of those “firefly” embers were extinguished in the early 1980s when the trains stopped operating for good and the tracks were left abandoned and dormant for decades.

Now, “The Firefly” is in the midst of rebirth, as a massive “rail-to-trail” effort is underway to repurpose the 39-mile route from a stagnant railway track to a vibrant nature trail, connecting eight cities across three counties, and will be the ideal route for walking, running, cycling, and skating while being safely tucked away from the imposing dangers of cars and trucks traveling the roadways.

Dreamt up in 2008, the Firefly Trail, which naturally bears the old railway moniker, is slowly being constructed in segments as funding is secured with portions already open in Athens. The entire project is loosely estimated to cost upwards of $15 million once complete and will connect Athens, Union Point, Maxeys, Crawford, Arnoldsville, and Winterville. The look of the trail will be diverse as it will travel through both urban and rural areas. While much of the Athens portion of the trail will be surfaced with concrete, the rural sections of the trail in Oglethorpe and Greene counties will likely be gravel. Nature-lovers can wander the path leading through open fields, pastures and forested areas, where myriad wildlife will surely be visible – deer, foxes, raccoons, opossums, armadillos, and various birds.

Union Point, which is currently in the planning and fundraising stage for a one-mile segment, stands to benefit substantially from the trail because of its convenient location.

“Union Point is in a particularly sweet spot to attract trail-related tourism,” says Firefly Trail Inc. Board member Lisa Baynes, a Union Point native and local real estate agent. “It’s an easy drive from Augusta, Atlanta, Macon, and beyond. We’re close to the lake communities, and we’re already known as a destination because of the Corry House and Hart Farm mountain biking trails.”

Firefly Trail Inc. is a non-profit organization tasked with overseeing the creation of a multi-use trail from Athens to Union Point along the corridor of the historic Athens branch of the Georgia Railroad. Union Point leaders hope to mirror the results of other small communities that have benefited from popular “rail-to-trail” installations.

“We have a lot going for us,” says Mayor Lanier Rhodes. “We’re in the right place. We have the right leadership and the right climate to capitalize on the trail. We’ve seen trails bring new life and new energy into cities like ours. Now, we just need to make it happen.”

Mark Ralston, chairman of Firefly Trail, Inc., points to other small communities that received a significant economic boost due to new trails paved.

“For example, the city of Traveler’s Rest, S.C., leveraged the Swamp Rabbit Trail to transform a dying downtown into a thriving business district. In west Georgia, restaurants, residential developments and other businesses advertise their proximity to the 60-mile-long Silver Comet Trail,” explains Ralston. “I would never have gone to Rockmart without the Silver Comet Trail, but because of it, I’ve visited Rockmart more than 20 times and have bought lunch there every time. Multiply my spending by many tens of thousands of other trail users, and that’s a pretty good economic boost for a small town.”

The plans for the Firefly Trail are designed to preserve a vital piece of Georgia’s history, enhance the quality of life in surrounding communities, improve health and safety, and expand economic development opportunities throughout the region.  

“The benefits of trail systems are often overlooked and go beyond the obvious recreational and environmental  opportunities they provide,” explains Baynes. “Communities fortunate enough to have a trail system like the proposed Firefly reap the benefits of better health, active transportation options, economic development, and simply a sense of pride in their community. It seems to start a snowball effect of preservation and revitalization in communities that may never have that opportunity otherwise.”

According to Firefly Trail Inc., “Trails are safe places for exercise and active transportation, so they help people of all ages combat cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and other effects of inactive lifestyles. By separating bike/pedestrian traffic from roadways, trails can improve safety. Trails bring foot and bicycle traffic, which is good for business, and long trails often attract significant tourism. Trails can be resources for historic preservation and education, as well as corridors for nature. Trails tend to reduce crime in the areas they serve and increase nearby property values. Most importantly, trails make communities more attractive places to live and work, which helps recruit and retain investment in new businesses, industries and residents.”

According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, “Trails build local businesses. Bicycle tourists, a growing, affluent segment of the tourist market, contribute significantly to local businesses that are well-connected to trails.”

Nearly a decade after its conception, the first portion of the Firefly Trail opened in Athens in October 2017. Local leaders recognized the significance the new rail-trail holds for Athens and other communities when the trail expands.

“In the same way that the Athens line of the Georgia Railroad really infused this town with new life more than 150 years ago, this trail today is going to infuse this town with life for generations to come,” said Kelly Girtz, a Clarke County commissioner at the 2017 Ribbon Cutting for the Firefly Trail. The first segment to open spans from downtown Athens to East Athens, encompassing one mile, including a 500-foot-long bridge that towers 40-feet over the North Oconee River and a connection to the North Oconee River Greenway and Dudley Park. In November 2017, Athens-Clarke County voters passed a Transportation Special Project Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST), which will be pivotal in extending the trail.

“This will ensure the funding for the trail to continue for about seven more miles to the county line and eventually set it up to make the entire 39-mile trek to Union Point, Georgia,” explained a spokesperson from the Firefly Trail, Inc.  

The opening of the first portion of the Firefly Trail gave leaders from other communities a tiny glimpse of the bigger picture for the entire project.

“It’s going to be the backbone of a new economy from here to Union Point,” says Dodd Ferrelle, Mayor of Winterville, Georgia.

The proposed plan has the Firefly Trail beginning in Athens, heading east through Winterville and then diverting south, all the way to Union Point.

The Firefly Trail achieved another pivotal milestone in 2017 when Union Point was awarded a $100,000 grant to partially fund a one-mile model portion of the trail. Union Point received the maximum amount available through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Recreational Trails Program, which is funded by the Federal Recreational Trails Program. The city pledged to provide $50,000 in matching local funds, and Firefly Trail, Inc., pledged to raise an additional $30,000.

“We received a $100,000 DNR Match Grant  a couple of years ago and are diligently working to meet that match,” says Ralston.

The next fundraising event is planned for Aug. 16 at Festival Hall in downtown Greensboro. Firefly Trail Inc., will host a Beatles tribute concert to raise money for the one-mile model trail. “We still need around $50,000 and time is running out as our grant expires in December 2019. Donations and support are greatly needed and appreciated,” explains Baynes. “Union Point is in the process of Fundraising and Land Acquisitions at this time. Union Point recently acquired the very first parcel for the Model Mile. The Model Mile will start just shy of downtown Union Point and end at the city limits on the north side of the STEAM Elementary School. The Model Mile is estimated to cost anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million-plus depending on the surface chosen.”

According to Firefly Trail, Inc., the funds will build a paved path, ten-to-twelve-feet wide, from downtown Union Point to the Union Point STEAM Academy elementary school, located about 0.6 miles north of the city on Ga. 77. The school’s front lawn is bisected by the abandoned corridor of the Georgia Railroad Athens Branch, which the trail will utilize wherever possible. Currently, the only access to the school is via the highway, so the trail will create the first and only safe route to school for families in Union Point.

“The proposed Firefly Trail will be a great addition to Union Point, as it is sure to drive economic development and enhance the quality of life for our citizens,” said Rep. Trey Rhodes, R-Greensboro when announcing the grant in 2017. “This Recreational Trails Program grant is a tremendous win for Union Point and will play a major role in helping to further develop the Firefly Trail in our community.”

Like Union Point, Maxeys received a $100,000 DNR Recreational Trails Grant in 2016.

According to Firefly Trail, Inc., the Federal Recreational Trails Program (RTP) is a highly competitive grant program that provides funding for trail construction, trail maintenance and trail education. The Georgia RTP, which is funded through the Federal Highway Administration and administered at the state level, develops and maintains recreational trails and trail-related facilities consistent with the Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP). The City of Union Point Firefly Trail is one of only fourteen trail projects in Georgia to receive a new DNR grant, totaling $2.3 million for trail development and upkeep statewide.

For the last eight years, the Firefly Trail, Inc., has orchestrated an event to raise both funds and awareness of the Firefly Trail project with an annual Firefly Trail Ticket to Ride, which typically draws about 300 riders. Every year, cyclists follow the path of the old Georgia Railroad via nearby roadways. The most recent Firefly Trail Ticket to Ride in March featured an 87-mile loop with starting points in Athens, Maxeys, and Union Point.

“It’s intended as a fundraising event but also as a fun day that will kind of introduce people to what the Firefly Trail is all about and draw attention to the first section of Firefly Trail that has been built here in Athens beginning at Dudley Park,” says John Kissane, trail development coordinator for Firefly Trail, Inc.

“It’s to raise money for the organization to help us get the trail built and it’s also to raise awareness about what the trail is and how gorgeous the path will be when it’s done,” says Firefly Trail president Mark Ralston, who notes while the money raised from this event is only a drop in the bucket of what’s needed, the exposure is pivotal to the project.

“It doesn’t put much trail on the ground,” says Ralston about the Ticket to Ride proceeds, “but it’s helping us get the message out and match other funds and demonstrate to grantors and grant organizations that we’re active and the community is engaged.”

Participants who began in Union Point were treated to a free beer courtesy of Oconee Brewing Co. in Greensboro. The annual ride in 2019 not only included a starting point and rest stop at the Union Point Theatre, but aided in Union Point’s efforts to raise matching funds for a Georgia Department of Natural Resources Recreational Trails Grant the city received.

While the costs seems steep for the Firefly Trail, the return will be more than worth it, say advocates.

“When all the pieces are connected, the Firefly Trail will breathe new life into Union Point, Woodville, Maxeys, Crawford, Arnoldsville, Winterville, Athens, and points in-between,” said a spokesperson for Firefly Trail, Inc.  “A 2016 study conducted by The Georgia Institute of Technology for the Georgia Department of Transportation estimates the Firefly Trail will attract 1.13 million users a year and generate $14.7 million in annual economic impact when finished.  It will attract people from near and far to improve their health, get to work or school without a car, see historic sites, shop at stores, eat at restaurants, and just have fun.”

In order to fully bring the Firefly Trail to fruition, from Athens to Union Point, the project is in need of more volunteers, advocates and donors.

“Depending on future Grant opportunities and the local donations and support, it will take a few years to get the trail complete,” acknowledges Baynes. “However, we are working very hard behind the scenes now to keep this on track. The county and cities will work together to see this project complete. Once complete, both the county and the cities of Woodville and Union Point will see the positive benefits it will bring to our area as a whole entity.”

Baynes says she hopes more people will get involved to help the Firefly Trail soar.

“We are always looking for interested individuals that share the vision to potentially serve on our Board of Directors, or serve on our Local Action Committee, a little closer to home,” says Baynes.

For more information, visit fireflytrail.com. For local inquiries, email Baynes at LisaBFirefly@gmail.com.

Story by Tia Lynn Ivey

Photographs by Josiah Connelly

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