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Rails to Trails: Summer Fun and Community Development Engine

The following article features contributions from Virginia Wilson (affiliated with Coldwell Banker Commercial Caine) and Dan Stiebel (affiliated with Coldwell Banker Commercial Schmidt)

What is now known as a thriving transportation and recreational trail system in Greenville, South Carolina, the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail began as a partially completed railroad project dating back to the late 1800s. In a time of frenzied railroad construction, the Carolina, Knoxville & Western Railroad was born in 1889.

Modeled after hundreds of similar projects across the country, the railroad had plans to stretch roughly 300 miles, connecting Greenville County to the Atlantic Ports and Tennessee. However, two years later, the railroad went bankrupt with only 12 miles completed. From hauling timber to weekend passenger service, the rail was then used by many owners for different purposes, never expanding beyond Greenville County. Along the journey, the name for the railroad became “The Swamp Rabbit” –coined by passengers for the way the uneven tracks “hopped” through the Reedy River wetlands.

Freight Transportation Route Becomes Tourist Attraction
It wasn’t until 1998 that the railroad was purchased by Upstate Forever, a local nonprofit who launched a campaign for public acquisition of the line to convert it to a trail. Now a 22-mile multiuse greenway, the Swamp Rabbit Trail system stretches from north of Traveler’s Rest through Greenville.

Recently named one of the top 10 places to live in 2019, Greenville, South Carolina is no stranger to accolades. For many, however, the town was not on the map 10 years ago. Looking at the history of this railroad turned multi-use path reveals how transformational the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail system has been to the town’s success. Today, the trail is used by over 500,000 people annually with 18-25% of those people being tourists. The trail generates nearly $7 million in tourism-based revenues for Greenville County each year.

This “rails to trails” phenomenon is happening across the country. In Traverse City Michigan, the TART is a 10.5-mile-long paved trail that was spurred from the economic revival of a rail corridor in Traverse City. The trail has encouraged residential and commercial development throughout the area. Hotels, apartments, a new cycle shop, a winery, and a clothing store joined the region, to name a few. Julie Taylor, Executive Director of TART Trails, cited a study in Northern Michigan of the Vasa Pathway a few years ago which found that the path contributed $2.6 million annually to the region through trail use (events and day use)

Rails to Trails Foster Community Engagement
Ty Houck, Director of Greenways, Natural and Historic Resources for Greenville County, has been overseeing development and operations of the trail since 2007. Dubbed the “Father of the Swamp Rabbit Trail,” Ty is quick to credit the large community of support behind the project. To Ty, the Swamp Rabbit Trail system offers much more than a weekend bike ride.

In his words, “This is a bigger system than just a trail.” For some Greenville County residents, it is a lifeline. To the 28% of Greenville residents who do not have a driver’s license, the trail opens opportunities for a quick bike ride or walk from home to community destinations.

Trails Provide a Desirable Lifestyle Amenity
When asked why the trail is important to the community, Ty shares stories of the life-changing effects the trail has had on many residents. The accessible nature of the flat, paved trail has caught the attention of many individuals in wheelchairs. Developments of zero entry homes have been spurred by the trail, allowing hand cyclists to get from inside their homes to the trail system with ease.
Brad Halter, Chairman of Coldwell Banker Caine and Coldwell Banker Commercial Caine and lifelong Greenville resident, comments on the growth the trail has encouraged in Greenville. “It has been remarkable to see long ignored corridors in town become a catalyst for economic growth – and even more than that, health and quality of life.”

Matt Vanvick, broker with Coldwell Banker Commercial Caine, experienced this firsthand in representing the lease for Craft Axe Throwing, a unique game center franchise. When the operation moved to Greenville, the owners were especially interested in a developing area of town that would draw foot traffic. Hampton Station was the perfect fit. Situated in Greenville’s Old Water Tower district, this development features a taco shop, brewery, CrossFit gym, and of course, it is directly connected to the Orange Line of the Swamp Rabbit Trail system.

Rail Trails Encourage Economic Re-Use of Obsolete Real Estate
Real estate developers like Drew Parker of the Parker Group, also view the trail as an opportunity. The Commons, Drew’s current project, is turning an old mill into a center for office space and local restaurants. In Drew’s words, people are looking for experiences and authenticity. Now, instead of simply going on a bike ride, you have the option to bike to a brewery, to lunch, or for a cup of coffee.

The movement has inspired development outside of Greenville as well. Travelers Rest, the once sleepy town 15 minutes outside of Greenville, was named for its function as a stopping point for travelers passing through on their way to the Western North Carolina mountains. Now, a mini epicenter for culinary and brewery excellence, the town has outgrown its name. Much of the transformation happening in Travelers Rest is credited to the Green Line of the Swamp Rabbit Trail.

Converted Train Paths are Comparable to an Urban Subway System
The success of TART, the Swamp Rabbit Trail and similar projects is only growing. Greenville County Rec views the Swamp Rabbit Trail system as an opportunity for the entire upstate expanding like a subway system or like Ty likes to say, “a road network without cars”. Cities throughout the Upstate are joining the broad conversation and looking into easement agreements to create and connect trails. Ideally, the pieces of the trail will all connect together one day.

For the Swamp Rabbit Trail system, the Cinderella story is not finished yet. The simple ribbon of asphalt continues to expand in multiple directions connecting people to places in their community. Transforming once forgotten corners of old mill communities into vibrant centers of activity, the undeniable economic impact continues to grow. Beyond South Carolina, the rails to trails initiative weaves throughout the country. Coldwell Banker Commercial recognizes the entrepreneurial and resourceful nature of this movement as something to keep our eyes on.