Construction on the next segment of the Eureka Trail in McMinn County, Tenn., is scheduled to begin soon with the trail projected to be completed in the next year.
The roughly 1.3-mile section will connect the existing trail to the outskirts of Englewood, a small town of 1,500. The total cost of the section is $300,000. The city will pay $25,000, and the county will pay an additional $29,800.
"The health benefits are just tremendous but the economic benefits are equally tremendous for both cities," said Austin Fesmire, director of the Athens Parks and Recreation Department and president of the Athens Parks Foundation. "We have numerous people out there who have changed their lifestyle because of our investment in this project."
The project was set in motion when the city received a $50,000 grant from the Lyndhurst Foundation and $200,000 in funding from a state Recreation Educational Services grant.
Construction will begin once the final paperwork is completed in the coming weeks.
The trail — a 5.47-mile passageway from Athens to Englewood — not only provides residents exercise but is expected to bring more people to Englewood.
"It's going to take people to Englewood who otherwise might not be going over there," McMinn County Mayor John Gentry said. "It's going to tie the county together."
Fesmire and other officials are working with Englewood leaders to make sure the final stretch of trail leading to Englewood is on a concurrent schedule with the 1.3-mile section. When completed, the Englewood trailhead likely will pour directly into downtown, Englewood Community Action Group Chairman Mark Cochran said, which will provide more parking and potentially lead more people to the town.
Two of those people will be John and Becky McGrew.
John McGrew, 76, "had a little fight with cancer" last year, he said, and he needed to recover. He had read about the trail in the newspaper and started walking it. Once he was strong enough, he wanted to start riding it on a bicycle and asked his wife to join. But there was a problem. She didn't know how to ride a bike.
"When I was starting, I was afraid I'd break an arm, leg, something, but then I thought, 'I can do that at home,'" Becky McGrew said.
She took the risk and learned to ride a bike in the driveway and on the trail.
They started riding the trail regularly and have now ridden more than 500 miles since April.
The McGrews aren't the only regulars on the trail. They usually ride it three or so times a week and pass both regulars — who are on it even more than they are — and fresh faces, checking out the scenic, quiet trail for the first time.
The trail is made of a compact cement block material, one Fesmire picked out after traveling to other trails looking for the best affordable option.
It's part of the Rails to Trails project, a national group working to turn old railways across the U.S. into bicycle and walking trails.
Eventually, more sidewalks will connect from the trail through Athens, going past schools, parks, businesses and Tennessee Wesleyan University.
Officials see a much healthier community, one that walks more, takes in the area's scenic views and enjoys the outdoors. The plan is to make exercise as easy as possible while connecting the area to a trail system.
"There won't be any excuses," Gentry said.