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Town among eight groups still eligible for grant

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The town of Black Mountain has taken another step to become a more walkable community.

Black Mountain was one of seven applicants for Buncombe County Tourism Authority grants to move to the second round. Twelve entities applied, including Montreat College, which also moved to the second round (see related story on Page 3A).

Black Mountain asked for $1 million to go toward phase two of its Riverwalk greenway. The project, when completed, will connect the Flat Creek greenway, directly north of Black Mountain Primary, to the In-the-Oaks greenway, which runs adjacent to the south side of Montreat College’s Black Mountain campus.

“So when the Riverwalk greenway is complete, you will be able to go from Veterans Park to Cotton Creek, where the existing greenway ends," town manager Matt Settlemyer said. "It's the most costly and the most complicated connection."

Settlemyer described phase two of the Riverwalk greenway as the "linchpin" of the greenway system. Its completion, he said, will connect Veterans Park to the Montreat gate.

"This is part of a regional trail system, the Fonta Flora Trail, which comes out of Burke County," Settlemyer said. "It runs from Lake James, through the depot in Old Fort to the depot in Black Mountain to Asheville. That's a vision the state has endorsed."

The request from the town seeks funding from the Tourism Product Development Fund, which has been used by the TDA to award more than $19 million to 21 tourism projects in the last 15 years. The grants are awarded to nonprofit entities for capital projects that promote tourism, specifically overnight stays, in Buncombe County.

Settlemyer believes  the TDA's decision to allow the request from the town to advance to the second round demonstrates its  recognition that Black Mountain's greenway project will draw more overnight guests to Buncombe County.

"This link of the trail is important for the state's vision of a statewide trail system," he said. "And that vision has true tourism appeal to the area and will bring new people from outside of the area to Black Mountain."

Initial estimates indicate a the project could bring as many as 45,000 guests in the first three years of operation. The town is gathering more specific data to support that conclusion for a more comprehensive TDA application, which will be reviewed after the Aug. 31 deadline.

Local resident Michelle DiStephano  uses the trail system every day and said it is easy to see how connecting the north and south ends of the town would draw more visitors.

"I enjoy going on long hikes and back-country camping," she said while out for a morning run on the In-the-Oaks trail. "So I can certainly see how people would use trails from other areas to come here."

The town was awarded a $2 million grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation in October 2015 to assist with designing phase two of the greenway. The town entered a contract for the project with Asheville-based design firm Equinox, who focuses on environmentally responsible land development.

"We've also applied for $2 million from the next round of that grant, which is split with 80 percent of the money coming from the Federal Highway Administration through the state and to the town and 20 percent coming from the town itself," Settlemyer said. "That process though has a lot of administrative costs, overhead costs and oversight responsibilities. So if we can subsidize some of those costs from other sources, that is a positive."

Budget workshops prior to the passing of the 2016-17 budget included discussions about the town's 2016-21 capital improvement plan, which provides a course for how the town will proceed with phase two of the Riverwalk greenway.

"This will help tie both ends of the town together," Settlemyer said. "In the next five years the most important piece of our greenway system will be constructed."

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