Trail welcome center opening and autism walk draw good crowd
A crowd showed up for the ribbon-cutting at the Tanglefoot Trail Welcome Center and Autism Acceptance walk despite a threat of rain Saturday.
Community Development Director Billye Jean Stroud said she was pleased with the attendance, especially considering the weather.
The formal opening, in conjunction with the seasonal opening of the trail itself, comes three years after work on the welcome center began. It is still not open on a regular basis.
In addition to the ribbon-cutting, King Therapies Behavioral Solutions and the New Albany Community Development Office sponsored an autism acceptance walk to help mark the annual autism awareness month. A group of about 75, many of them wearing blue autism awareness shirts and accompanying those with autism, walked down the trail after the ribbon-cutting.
The Union County Library, next to the welcome center, provided coffee and other snacks and had activities available for kids. Lemonade and cookies were offered in the welcome center, where visitors could purchase Tanglefoot Trail T-shirts, which come in two styles.
Saturday was Celebrate Trails Day, started by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in 2013. It is on the fourth Saturday each April and encourages people throughout the country to get outside and enjoy the nation’s trail systems.
Work on the trail began in earnest in 2012 and plans called for welcome centers in New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston. At a then-estimated cost of $350,000 each, funding was not available.
There was still interest in having a welcome center here with several potential locations discussed including using an office just off the trailhead plaza and building one in the library parking lot.
Aldermen finally approved a plan in 2018 but funding was still a problem.
The low bid by Roberts Construction of Ripley was $218,000. However, most of the cost was to come from an MDOC grant originally intended for an access road to the trail pavilion between Camp and the South Central intersection. Aldermen initially rejected the grant for the road but later asked to use it for the welcome center.
The amount was cut to $125,000 – only about half the cost – because of the scope of the project had changed.
Mayor Tim Kent was able to get $40,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission but that would leave the project about $70,000 short. The alternative then was to borrow $70,000 and pay it back using tourism tax money. That’s how the million-dollar tennis complex is being paid for.
The welcome center has essentially been empty and closed the past couple of years, except for some large informational panels on the walls providing information about the history of the railroad and trail.
People are using the sheltered outdoor area often and the exterior restrooms are open during trail hours. However, there is no tourism information inside, other souvenirs for sale or anyone to welcome visitors and tell them about eating, shopping and lodging opportunities, as well as other tourism attractions.
Private citizens are hoping to organize a group to support the welcome center with staffing and raise money to purchase the fixtures needed inside.