by Gene Marrano
Since 1996 there has been no greater advocate for the Roanoke Valley’s growing system of greenways than Liz Belcher. She is the only staff member for the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission and serves as the Roanoke Valley Greenway Coordinator. Belcher has a master’s in forestry from Virginia Tech, where she has also taught in the Outdoor Recreation Management program. She spent six years in recreation planning and trail management for the U.S. Forest Service, and helped organize the first Virginia Governor’s Conference on Greenways and Trails, held in Roanoke in 1999.
Since the greenway program overseen by Belcher began in the mid-ninety’s, more than 23 miles of urban trails have been built in the Roanoke Valley, with over 25 million dollars in grants, donations and local funds being awarded to the program. Belcher said she wasn’t the only one talking about Roanoke Valley greenways in the mid-ninety’s – she mentions Lucy Ellett, Charlie Blankenship and other board members on the Roanoke Valley Greenway Commission – and says that “right now the users are the Pied Pipers.”
Belcher is pleasantly surprised at times by how popular the trail system – especially the Roanoke River Greenway – has become with walkers, joggers and bikers. “We’re getting complaints about it being too crowded [now]. What amazes me is how many people are using it for health and wellness. You see a lot of people out there who are trying to address weight issues, trying to follow their doctor’s orders.”
The safety concerns some had about a greenway going in next to their property and those who might use it has subsided for the most part. “There are now people asking more money for their property – because it’s close to a greenway,” noted Belcher. At least one homeowner who had considered moving decided to stay put because he lived near the greenway at Wasena Park, figuring that was a better investment overall.
Belcher expects property values in southeast Roanoke to receive a boost when a trail now being built around the wastewater treatment plant on 13th Street connects the Roanoke River and Tinker Creek greenways. “When those people are connected they’re definitely going to see that their properties will be more desirable,” said Belcher. The Tinker Creek Greenway will wind up near Hollins University and eventually at Carvins Cove, where users can even connect to the Appalachian Trail. “That’s the long term plan,” said Belcher.
Right now the longest stretch of the Roanoke River Greenway is 5.4 miles, from the 13th Street parking lot to Vic Thomas Park, just over a footbridge from Wasena Park. That stretch has been temporarily broken by the replacement of the low water bridge at Smith Park/Wiley Drive, a project slated for completion on March 31.
“We’re trying to finish the middle of the greenway by 2013,” said Belcher, talking about an 18.3-mile stretch along the Roanoke River from Green Hill Park in West Roanoke County to 13th Street. The City of Salem is completing stretches within its boundary now. “We’re really trying to focus on getting the money [for that].”
Belcher said seven million is still needed; while in the past the project was “very dependent on government grants,” meted out incrementally, she is now looking for “exponential” funding that involves public and private sources, in order to be finished by 2013. When the 18.3 mile stretch is completed the Roanoke River Greenway will be one of the longest trails in an urban setting on the east coast.
Just think said Belcher: someone living in Salem may be able to bike to their job at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in the near future, “and possibly get there faster than they could in a car… certainly in a more healthy fashion”
Belcher said the real “success stories” of the growing greenway system and other natural surface trails has been those volunteers and civic groups (Pathfinders for Greenways, Kiwanis Club, etc.) that have pitched in to work on trails and maintain them. “It’s such a partnership,” said Belcher; while each local government owns the piece of greenway within its jurisdiction “it takes a lot of private people and corporate help…to make it happen.”
The mileage markers erected by the Roanoke Kiwanis Club on the Roanoke River Greenway has “really raised the profile. The mileage markers make people feel secure when they’re out there. It [also] helps people to know where they are.”
Greenways are a quality of life issue often touted now by economic development specialists, wherever they are built around the country. “The local business community,” said Belcher, “has realized how important the greenways can be when trying to attract new employees and young professionals to Roanoke.” And there’s more to come: “within a year to a year and a half we’ll have quite a few more miles [finished],” Belcher promises.