You may have read about the Tweetsie Trail’s journey to becoming one of the most-used recreational hotspots of Johnson City and Elizabethton in this week’s print edition.
Below is an interview with former Johnson City Mayor Steve Darden. Darden, a member of the Tweetsie Trail Task Force who with his wife Anne is a regular trail user, was instrumental in all phases of the work that have brought the trail to reality. He met with News and Neighbor late August to talk about the years-long process, and the Q and A that followed is below:
News and Neighbor: Take us back to the beginning, at least the beginning for you. Who came to the city first with the crazy idea about a rails to trails project along this rail line, when was it and what was the shape of this person/persons’ initial vision?
Steve Darden: The question sort of goes to the issue of ‘whose idea was it?’ great thing about this project is that it has never been about one person’s vision or idea. It was such a familiar concept; the concept of rails to trails conversion was familiar by virtue of the Creeper Trail. so there were some folks who had a particular interest in that who promoted the idea.At that time, Johnson City had a bikeway and greenway committee and that committee voiced its approval for the concept: The late Tom Dosser who was so instrumental in parks in this area and really probably should have the title of Mr. Buffalo Mountain Park; Tom and others on his committee including Frank Nicely; and I also recall Dan Reese being a person who had an orientation toward a project in this way; I would include myself in that category; and then Charlie Stall who came over from having been Elizabethton’s city manager, joined Johnson City’s staff.
The first real step toward making this reality was to pay a call on Genesee in Wyoming at the office over there at the rail yard (near Legion Street and State of Franklin Road). There are a couple of gentlemen that work out of that office, Keith Holley and Darrell Edwards, who knew that the railroad that owned this stretch of rail line didn’t have plans of resuming commercial traffic or hauling freight. So it was really only a matter of time before something happened. And that something was most likely just an abandonment of the line.
Not only did I have an affinity for this type of asset to a city’s list of quality of life attributes, I also happened to be mayor of the town. So we met with an executive from Genesee in Wyoming at City Hall in January 2006, and expressed our interest in buying it; that particular individual seemed to be eager to put that on a fast track. Of all the adjectives that could apply to the Tweetsie Trail from that point on, ‘fast track’ is not one of them. Because the feedback we ultimately got from him and the railroad was, as a privately held entity, with stockholders, they had to go through a process that would maximize the value of that asset to the railroad. They had no intention of resuming rail traffic, but they were interested in the hard assets. The rail was of particular value to them, the cross-ties not so much but some of them I’m sure were salvaged ultimately.But they put together a process through which we and any other interested party could bid. And ours became the successful bid.
News and Neighbor:Were there other bids?
Darden: I think there were expressions of interest.
News and Neighbor: Elizabethton talked about it, right? They actually even talked about, would we be losing the potential for a viable economic driver?
Darden: There were initial meetings held; there was even an initial public meeting in City Hall and most of the attendees there were nostalgic about the railroading past and the heritage and history of our location. There were ideas floated about an excursion train, which while it sounds good, wasn’t economically viable because a ten-mile excursion is not enough to really get settled in your seat and have a cup of coffee.
News and Neighbor: But people had their say.
Darden: People had strong opinions and were given an opportunity to have their say, absolutely. And you know what? If the economic realities had been that the highest and best use, from an economic standpoint, of the railroad line having trains, there would be trains running on there today. But ultimately it became pretty clear that a recreational use was the most popular and the only viable way to preserve that corridor.
We in Johnson City are believers in doing stuff the right way at the local government level and being a lawyer I had done enough research to determine that in order for us to utilize this former rail line, this linear piece of real estate, we needed to go through a process known as railbanking. It’s a federal act and it allows rail lines like this which were required basically during the heyday of the nation’s railroads, it allowed those right of ways to be preserved and essentially mothballed. It basically says that if somewhere in the future in the event of national emergency or economic conditions changing as such that there needs to be a railroad, then the land can be re-purposed for that use. So we had heard enough horror stories, if you will, that may be a little overstated, but we had heard of enough communities who had tried this but really hadn’t dotted the I’s and crossed the t’s and they wound up with trails that had interruptions, and that just weren’t intact.
News and Neighbor: It sounds like doing it right even if you get to the point of a willing seller, which you did, is an exhaustive legal and bureaucratic process. And you ended up in touch with Charles somebody…
Darden: Charles Montaigne. He had previously been the general counsel for the national rails to trails conservancy.
News and Neighbor: Sounds like a good guy to know if you’re wanting to do something like this.
Darden: In my official capacity as mayor, one of the first contacts I made after advising the railroad that Mr. Stahl and I were interested as a potential buyer was to contact the conservancy. Dan Reese is a known player up there. And so after a phone call with them, it was clear to me that we needed competent experts … we need specialized legal counsel and the person who had just left there (Montaigne) had a law office in Seattle and so we engaged him to represent us.So when we ultimately responded to this bid, a request for a proposal by the railroad, one of our conditions to them was that they petition the federal service transportation board and that they achieve a rail bank certificate of rail banking for this land.
News and Neighbor: In other words, when you signed the contract that it was yours, they had already done that part…
Darden: Our response to their request for proposals was ‘we’ll pay you “X” provided that you have achieved a rail banked process.’ I mentioned that ‘fast track’ was not exactly a phrase to use. In April of 2011, when I had my last meeting as a member of the board of commissioners, we actually then signed the contract to transfer the dollars to the railroad. So you’re talking meeting in city hall in January 2006… five years. It was very gratifying to me that I got to be part of the commission that not only approved all of these steps, but put the final approval of payment and all that.
News and Neighbor: Was it $600,000?
Darden: I think it was four. But as has been pointed out by many since, we didn’t utilize any monies other than city dollars. didn’t accept federal grants, state grants. Consequently, once the ownership was a done deal, we were able to develop the trail in rapid fashion. Our hands haven’t been tied. So the development phase which has been spearheaded by the Tweetsie Trail Task Force, which is appointed by the board of commissioners of Johnson City, has done an amazing and very commendable job of fundraising and developing the trail in concert with the city of Johnson City’s public works department and now that of the city of Elizabethton.
News and Neighbor: Obviously it took five years to get the land purchased because of all the work that had to be done. Had there been any grants accepted, state or federal with the strings that are attached to those, what do you think this project would’ve looked like terms of the timeline from April 2011… would we be anywhere near what we have today if we had those strings that tend to be attached when there’s a federal grant.
Darden: The product we have now is what it is because we were untethered and unencumbered by any conditions that might have come with state or federal dollars.
News and Neighbor: Did you guys discuss the possibility of applying for those types of grants?
Darden: Only to acknowledge that we were better off not doing something like that.
News and Neighbor: You left the commission April of 2011 and the property was purchased. Were you away from it for a while? What did the next couple, two three years look like prior to the task force really ramping up?
Darden: I don’t know if I would deserve the title of ‘nagger-in-chief.’ But I continued to inquire of my former colleagues on the city commission as to what was going on and I actually encouraged Mayor (Jeff) Banyas in order to get some maybe accelerated results to consider the appointment of a task force. They did and they were kind enough to put me on it. I think that it’s been great to be able to have remained involved with the development of the trail because of the history I have with it and the passion I have for its potential.
News and Neighbor: Even without taking federal or state dollars, the city could’ve decided to do this primarily as a public sector project, could it not? Could’ve just kept it in public works’ hands and said, ‘OK how can we come up with the money out of the city budget, what are we going to do? But somehow it became this private/public partnership that really looks like it’s as much private, if not more, than public. do you think this project would’ve looked like without the private sector becoming involved?
Darden: Without the generosity of the donors, this project would’ve been subject to the budget process and most likely would not have been at the front of the line because there are other worthwhile projects that the city has had on the drawing board. So you could probably say that the city of Johnson City and its taxpayers took the initial and critical step of paying for this 10-mile corridor and then the task force having been tasked with development, pulled that off with the minimal further contribution of public monies by tapping into what proved to be a very eager source of private funding from businesses and individuals, users of the trail.
News and Neighbor: Clearly you thought this was a project worth pursuing and it would be an asset to the community. We’ve got a year’s worth of official use. How does the reality stack up with the vision so far?
Darden: To me the outcome matches the initial vision. I always advocated for this project because of its enhancement of recreational and individual wellness opportunities, because of its economic development potential, because of the positive attention that it has brought to Johnson City, Washington County, Carter County and Elizabethton. What we couldn’t really predict and didn’t have control over was how our friends in Carter County and Elizabethton were going to react. But here we are one year after Johnson City’s ribbon cutting and Elizabethton is having a ribbon cutting. So one of the greatest things about this is the connection it has forged between Elizabethton and Johnson City. Two communities that are really linked by history and now in modern times, we hear people from Johnson City speaking glowingly about what they’re discovering in Elizabethton ― the water front, Sycamore Shoals, the downtown businesses…
I think that it is a concrete example of the kinship between Elizabethton and Johnson City, Carter County and Washington County, and a very, very good example of what our region can do. I mean we did this by ourselves. Local people did this and one of the great things about the Tweetsie Trail … it’s amazing what can happen when nobody cares about who gets credit. When we first started with this, there was a dedicated, core group of people who were all-in. Along the way, that group has grown and multiplied and now the outcome, I think, speaks for itself.
News and Neighbor: Where’s it going now? Where could it go? What can this be a spring board for enhancing our communities?
Darden: The potential for linking the significant historical sites that we have in our area is pretty obvious. The task force has endorsed the concepts of spurs leading to Tipton Haynes, Rocky Mount is certainly not beyond reach of even the average cyclist, Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton is linked; the tourism opportunities that this presents are enormous. So now what I think we have is an example of government taking the initial steps and then the private sector capitalizing on it by using their creativity and taking risks. People have an opportunity to really develop a phenomenal tourist attraction for our area.
News and Neighbor: Do you anticipate that the task force is beginning to look around and say ‘OK, what do we want to try to do or suggest next?’ And what about to the west? Are you looking at Jonesborough and talking so that one could go all the way from Tennessee’s oldest town to Elizabethton through Johnson City?
Darden: That makes all the sense in the world. I don’t know if the task force has talked about it.
News and Neighbor: Will you be in Elizabethton Sept. 5?
Darden: Yes, in fact I have received a challenge from Elizabethton’s mayor to compete in some sort of either cycling or a foot race, but I’m basically standing in for Mayor Van Brocklin who I understand is unavailable. It is really thoughtful of Elizabethton folks to ask me to participate, given my history, even though I’m not a current office holder. I hope I won’t let Jonson City down. I may be getting sandbagged. I’ve been told that Mayor (Elizabethton’s Curt) Alexander has some sort of credentials as a former cyclist. It’s all in good fun.
News and Neighbor: How do you feel when you are on that trail and you see hundreds of people enjoying it, knowing that you played no small role in this?
Darden: It just reinforces my belief that we live in a wonderful part of the world. I’ve always felt like Johnson City was a great place to live and I would argue the best place to live in the state of Tennessee. I’ve always felt that way because of the people who, when I was a kid, made sure that there were opportunities for young people, for families and for seniors to have quality of life. I was mindful of that during my time on the city commission and was surrounded by people who were like-minded. It’s an enhancement of what Johnson City has always been about.
News and Neighbor: Do you think that it and other things that people may or may not recognize, for instance Founder’s Park, are bearing fruit from the era that you served?
Darden: Absolutely. I certainly do. I would say most of the people who go to Founder’s Park for a Friday night concert don’t give a lot of thought about who the decision-makers were that made that park a reality. They’re just happy to be there. And that’s a wonderful, wonderful reward for somebody who’s held public office. It’s about making JC what it’s always been: a great place to live, raise a family and be a grown-up.