A Storied Walk
The next chapter of the Cashiers Greenway Ramble
By KAT FORD
Somewhere between ten and fifteen years ago, Bob Dews, owner of the Laurelwood Inn, started reaching out to local business owners and friends. His idea was simple, to make Cashiers walkable. Then, it was difficult for pedestrian traffic to move around the crossroads. When the initial idea for the project that would eventually become the Cashiers Walking Trail started, there weren't even crosswalks at the crossroads. To shop in Cashiers required driving to individual retailers and destinations. Bob envisioned a loop, where visitors and locals could park anywhere, walk around, make it back to their car and never get lost. He felt that it was better to move people behind the main spaces, creating a leisurely path instead of street sidewalks, which required more planning, engineering and money.
In addition to raising money from local businesses, Dews asked organizations like the Rotary Club of Cashiers Valley, Jackson County Tourism Development Authority, and Jackson County Economic Development to match funds dollar for dollar. When done, for every dollar he had raised, he had five. With a total of $25 thousand and the blessing of multiple businesses and landowners, mulch was placed, and maps were printed.
Over the years, the Cashiers Walking Trail became in need of an ongoing group of stewards. As time passed and landowners and businesses changed, the trail also needed room to grow. In 2018, when the Village Conservancy asked Vision Cashiers to take over their organization, the trail fell under Vision Cashiers’ mission of “improving tomorrow...today.” Immediately the pathway and preservation task force went to work on what was now named the Cashiers Greenway Ramble.
The first step was to take out liability insurance; the second was to apply for a grant from the Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation. By December 2019, the grant was announced, with a catch. The Ramble needed an autonomous organization to maintain the trail over the long term. In January 2020, the Friends of The Cashiers Greenway Ramble formed. With funds from the grant, more significant cleanup of the trail and future planning was now possible. After a series of interviews with master plan consultants, Equinox Environmental in Asheville was chosen- familiar with the area, already partnering with Jackson County on trails for the Cashiers/Glenville Recreation Center- they are known for their organic, sustainable, environmental approach to projects. They weren't only interested in what the Ramble needed, but what Cashiers needed from the Ramble.
The project began in early 2020, right before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Committed to staying on time and budget, Equinox worked with the pathway and preservation task force remotely and in small socially distanced groups during site visits. Meetings with task force members were held via Zoom across multiple states, as many second home residents were quarantining outside of North Carolina. By the end of July, the master implementation plan's initial draft was sent out to over 1,800 people within the Cashiers community for comments. The plan was finalized by September of 2020.
Equinox chose to focus on three major areas of recommendation. For starters, through meetings and interviews, they found that many people in the community didn't know there was a Ramble or how to find it.
"Some years ago, I greatly admired Bob Dews’ efforts to lay out a walking path throughout the commercial district of Cashiers. … It wasn't until I was given a guided tour that the Ramble became real to me," says Eleanor Welling, who now leads informal tours of the Ramble, assists in cleanups and is part of the pathway and preservation task force.
Equinox also encouraged the task force to consider expansion in three distinct phases, and to find and partner with local stakeholders to strengthen the Cashiers Greenway Ramble's longevity. The task force reached out to Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department, the Jackson County Planning Department and the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority. Conversations were held regarding what early actions would need to be implemented if the county ever considered taking over the Ramble, like securing easements, using certain materials and considering ADA compliance. Feedback was given, and information was shared based on past experiences and possible future county projects.
With a finalized plan, the task force could now tackle implementation. Easements from property owners were a vital priority, as it was necessary if the county ever considered taking over the Ramble maintenance. A sub-task force, led by Virginia Guilfoile, set out on the task of contacting property owners. With various surfaces and terrains winding throughout downtown Cashiers, this included everything from flexible easements, requiring the capital investment of resurfacing, to permission for stenciled wayfinding markers in parking lots.
"The Ramble started as a project of the Cashiers community and today is being revitalized and extended through the efforts of a group of committed volunteers and generous donors from all over the plateau. … The Ramble represents a wonderful resource for visitors and residents of all ages and physical abilities," says task force leader, Margaret Carton.
New wayfinding for the Ramble was a multi-faceted endeavor led by Nan Major. The previous Ramble logo was reimagined into a key- the heart of all future wayfinding. Defined with four colors and five animal-inspired symbols, the key will serve as a way for Ramblers to find their way around the entirety of the Cashiers Greenway Ramble, or one of its four distinct paths and loops. A combination of bollards, kiosks, stencils and standards will line the revised paths. Bollards will be numbered for safety. Now, if a Rambler needs to call for help, they will have a distinct location to give first responders for reference, such as the deer path, bollard four. The Ramble is an entry-level walk and hike for many visitors to the area. For this reason, the map, created by Philip Curcuru, and trailhead kiosk will also include vital hiking tips, safety information and leave no trace instructions. The trailhead kiosk will include the history of the Ramble and past logos, an homage to the collective communal work invested over the years.
With a loop that interacts with multiple terrains, Equinox recommended several different surface options based on location. Prioritization of renovation was determined based on the current condition of the trial and use. It seems almost destined that the first trail prioritized was located behind Whiteside Brewing, the property that up until the fall of 2020 was owned by Bob Dews- a full circle moment in the life of the Ramble. A legal arrangement is currently in the works with the brewery's new owners, who are eager to continue the legacy of the Ramble's spirit of connecting the community. “We are excited to help facilitate and be a part of the vision of the Ramble as a vehicle for connecting Cashiers residents, visitors and businesses together,” says new owner Mat Barnwell.
As talk about the expansion of uses for the Ramble grew, a new story, or rather, StoryWalk®, began to unfold. A sub-task force, consisting of Ann Self, executive director of the Village Green, Nancy West of the Literacy Council of Cashiers, Serenity Richards, branch librarian of the Albert Carlton-Cashiers Community Library, and volunteer/bilingual advocate Ana Crespo convened with the purpose to create a series of StoryWalks® around the Ramble. The idea had been on the minds and in the hearts of Richards, Self, and West for a while, the renovated Ramble provided the needed opportunity. Within months, the StoryWalk® was on track to become a reality. The Village Green agreed to be the first location. Ben Harris, of Harris Custom Builders, LLC, volunteered to build and install the standards. Mountain Youth Charities was the first to award a grant, Wade Hampton Golf Club Donor Advised Fund, the second. The Literacy Council of Cashiers donated additional resources to the sub-project, which is still in need of donor dollars.
“I approached the Friends of the Cashiers Greenway Ramble to see if they would be interested in partnering with us and was blown away by the enthusiasm and support for the idea. … It's just perfect that we can have this right in the center of town at the Village Play, …the little ones can get reading practice in with a little kinesthetic learning, and some STEM activities for the older ones, as well. We're also so excited that we're going to be able to bring these stories to our community bilingually," says Richards.
“What fun it will be to show children and families the advantage of being together outside with a book and finding activities to do, that help bring the story to life! The Literacy Council of Cashiers’ primary mission is to further literacy in our area and this meshes perfectly,” says West. The StoryWalk® at the Village Green is on track to open on April 2, 2021, International Children's Book Day.
The expanded Cashiers Greenway Ramble is sure to provide a wealth of benefits for the community, connecting shoppers with local businesses, providing health and wellness activities and creating cultural enrichment opportunities. With three phases in the works, there is still a need for additional funds. In addition to the original grant, the first phase requires another $60 thousand. Phases two through three do not have a finalized price tag but will cost an estimated several hundred thousand. For those interested in contributing time, talents or dollars, visit www.visioncashiers.com.