United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced a $6 million federal grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to construct 50-75 miles of mountain bike trails in Cocke County. The trails in the Hartford community will extend from the Foothills Parkway, through the Cherokee National Forest.
Alexander said the proposal was made by the local community and was not brought by an outside organization, “to tell the locals what would work in Cocke County.”
“And what they came up with was, this is the Adventure Side of the Smokies, so how about mountain bikes. And so thanks to the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Governor’s priorities, this is a $6 million grant to create 50 to 75 miles of mountain bike trails to the top of Hall Mountain, with a shuttle to take the bikers up there,” Alexander said. “The idea is to get more of the 12 million visitors to the Smokies and the three million people who come to the Cherokee National Forest every year, to come through Cocke County. There have been three years of planning and that’s why we are all so excited about it. It’s a lot of money but it’s a local plan.”
The senator said there are a lot of bikers who are anxious to get onto the trails.
Lee called Monday a very important day for Cocke County.
“The announcement of this project is very important for economic development here, for rural Tennessee.” He went on to say the program will also benefit surrounding communities with increased tourism and increased economic activity in the region.
Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger was asked about a timeline for the project. “I’m not sure with all the environmentals that need to be done, the planning and the design, I couldn’t even hazard a guess,” the mayor said.
The ARC, in its budget last year, provided $500,000 for the environmental design and planning of the project.
Alexander has worked tirelessly for years to save wilderness lands and the environment, and Governor Lee was asked about his priorities for protecting the state’s environment.
“One of Tennessee’s treasured assets is the environment that we have. The beauty of our land We are here in one of the most beautiful spots in America, and we know we have the responsibility to steward those resources for the next generation,” he said.
The governor went on to say he and Alexander had an earlier discussion about how he as governor, “can commit to protecting the great resources and assets that we have in this state. We believe that is important.”
“This investment will benefit the people of Cocke County, and all Americans who hope to experience the beauty and majesty of East Tennessee’s rugged mountain landscapes for themselves,” Tim Thomas, ARC Federal Co-Chairman, said. “This project is a result of strong support from Senator Alexander, and is an example of his productive advocacy for Appalachian Tennessee throughout his storied career.”
Thomas added that the funding was federally appropriated and will cover the entire project. He said this is the largest grant that the ARC has made in several years.
Alexander stressed that the ARC appropriation “is a very large grant and does not require a local match. So with the governor’s strong support, this has the promise of being a very significant project.”
Asked why Cocke County was chosen for the large funding, Thomas said. “First of all we are an economic development entity, and we particularly focus on our more distressed communities. Cocke County needed something to give it a boost eco0nomically, and the locals said this is something that would fit. So we thought this would be a good investment. It will have economic benefits and ultimately create jobs.
The grant will go to the Cocke County Partnership which will coordinate the development of the project.
Linda Lewanski who is Tourism Director for the Partnership said the project will have a lasting mark on the community. And she believes the project will change the face of tourism and economic development in the community for decades to come.
“This will be a great value add for our visitors. They already love our mountains, rivers, and forests, and this will just be another thing for them to do. We always say it’s amazing what can happen when we work together in Partnership...and the Adventurous Side of the Smokies is about to get a little more adventurous.”