by Cole Smith, Richmond Magazine
For the first time this year, the sound of leaves hitting the ground can be heard at R. Garland Dodd Park in Chesterfield. It’s mid-October and the trails here are a popular attraction during this season. Kids hang out on a playground in the distance. Ahead, the Appomattox River flows by listlessly. This afternoon the trails lead only to the river and back to the parking lot. But that is about to change.
In December, the Friends of the Lower Appomattox River (FOLAR), a nonprofit dedicated to the river’s conservation, will complete a master plan for developing and upgrading trails along 23 miles of the Appomattox. Within that stretch lie six jurisdictions: the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George and the cities of Colonial Heights, Hopewell and Petersburg; the group says all of these localities would benefit from the project. FOLAR’s executive director, Wendy Austin, says they anticipate a large economic impact, including property value increases and better locations for businesses to develop. It also will provide a major recreational outlet and an influx of visitors.
“We see it as having a huge impact on the whole region by giving an opportunity to get out and be active,” says Austin.
Austin says engineers estimate the cost of these projects at $1 million per mile. As for completion time, “several years” is the best guess. But once done, the new trails will be accessible to all, according to the proposed master plan. It includes the implementation of handicapped-accessible trails and boat ramps.
A prime benefactor for the effort has been the Cameron Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for citizens in the Tri-Cities, Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell. In June the foundation gave a $100,000 grant to FOLAR to ensure the master plan’s development. This also led to Austin being hired as the first paid staff member in the organization.
“We knew installing these trails would require staff to complete,” says Cameron Foundation President Todd Graham. “So we really tried to help them as an organization to get to the next level.”
The plan itself is divided into two parts, with one focusing on the development of the trails while the other lays out plans for interpretative signage along the river.
“We actually determined [that the lack of signs] is a huge barrier for folks getting out onto the trail,” Austin says. “They don’t know where it is, and when they’re there, they aren’t even sure if they’re really on the trail.”
The trail system will stretch from Lake Chesdin to Hopewell. Trails will run along both sides of the river in Petersburg. After passing through the Roslyn Landing and Appomattox River regional parks, the trails will end at the Old City Point Waterfront Park in Hopewell.
These popular visitor destinations are not the only spots to which walkers and bikers will have access. According to an interpretive guide of the Appomattox River provided by the Crater Planning District Commission, the trails will give access to 38 attractions, including outdoor recreation, visitor centers, and cultural and historical sites.
Through cooperation with the Cameron Foundation, the Crater Planning District Commission, and the cities and counties around the Appomattox, FOLAR has already managed to develop more than $2 million in park and trail projects through private funding. Graham and Austin agree the Cameron Foundation will have an active role in many of the upcoming developments.
“I’m sure [the Cameron Foundation] will be able to provide more grant funding for some of the projects that relate to their vision in terms of health and wellness,” Austin says.
FOLAR has already accumulated several confirmed donations to begin work on the trails. The Virginia General Assembly voted to fund $100,000, while the City of Hopewell has committed to match up to $150,000. Smaller contributors include Dinwiddie County, Westrock Foundation and Virginia American Water. The first section of the trail will be built in early 2017, with further fundraising continuing after that.
FOLAR notes that there are challenges and constraints that come with a project this large. Those factors include the difficulty of gaining approval to extend a trail through private properties, maintaining trails once completed and balancing policy constraints across all six jurisdictions along the Appomattox. Austin says “collaboration and partnership” between all localities are key to developing a sustainable trail system.
Graham says the Cameron Foundation hopes these projects create a regional attraction that includes plenty of accessible recreational opportunities. Many sites along the river could accomplish this, with several historical locations ripe for visitation. In fact, many of these sites’ developments have been funded by the Cameron Foundation, including the Battersea Plantation in Petersburg and the Weston Plantation in Hopewell.
Locations like these, in unison with the appeal of nature and the opportunity for fun physical exercise, are why Austin says a trail system is needed along a treasure like the Appomattox River. To her, it’s “much, much more than just gravel on a pathway.”