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Jennifer and Shawn Siewert prepare to unload kayaks at a boat ramp on the Tennessee River, near the Shelby Rhinehart Bridge on Friday, May 24, 2019 in South Pittsburg, Tenn. The Siewerts planned to make a day of their kayaking trip, bringing food with them and fishing. They are from Steele, Ala.

The first step in an expansive new regional trail system will include the communities of South Pittsburg and Bridgeport, Alabama.

A total of 15 communities have been accepted as part of the inaugural Tennessee RiverTowns Program, which is part of the trail system Tennessee RiverLine.

The initiative is led by the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and is a three-stage program that is envisioned as a continuous system of biking and hiking trails as well as paddling along the Tennessee River's 652-mile stretch from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky.

One of 15 first-stage Tennessee RiverLine RiverTowns, the city of South Pittsburg's application for the program was led by local civic group South Pittsburg Area Revitalization Quest or SPARQ and also included support from other community members and organizations. Once the trail system is complete, the South Pittsburg community would benefit from economic development, increased access to river experiences and other amenities surrounding its natural resources, proponents say.

"Something like this had been on our radar for more than a year before we even formed SPARQ," said Carey Garland, president of the SPARQ program and product marketing director for Lodge Manufacturing. "Stage one, which is the research stage, will likely take a year, and we are anxious to begin and to learn what this will mean for the growth of our community.

"When you think about the Appalachian Trail and how iconic that is, how people revere it as one of the most peaceful places you can visit, then to think we really can be the next great regional line of trails, that's very exciting.

"It's an asset in our backyard, and those of us who grew up here have great memories of the area, and we believe this is a chance to do much more with it. We could have multiple spots for things like boat docks, kayak put-in, campgrounds, restaurants and all sorts of different businesses along the trail. Plus, our downtown is so close to the river, so there would be easy access to that as well. There are just so many positives to this."

In a recent survey of South Pittsburg residents conducted by SPARQ, citizens expressed a strong desire to see their town add walking trails and other outdoor recreation as well as more dining options.

Other communities included in the process include Decatur, Guntersville, Huntsville and The Shoals, Alabama, as well as Knoxville, Hardin County, Loudon County, Roane County, Stewart County, Tennessee, and Paducah-McCracken County, Kentucky.

Called North America's next great regional trail system, the Tennessee RiverLine originated in 2016 at the University of Tennessee School of Landscape Architecture, housed jointly within the College of Architecture and Design and the Herbert College of Agriculture. Today it is administrated by the Tennessee RiverLine Partnership with ongoing strong financial support from UT and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

The Tennessee RiverLine Partnership was founded as a group of river advocates, including UT, Tennessee Valley Authority, the National Park Service's Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program and several other organizations and agencies, to achieve the Tennessee RiverLine vision.

"Tennessee River communities are the beating heart of the Tennessee RiverLine," said a news release quoting Brad Collett, Tennessee RiverLine Partnership director and an associate professor at the Herbert College. "We are excited to begin collaborating with such a diverse group of communities through the Tennessee RiverTowns Program as we seek to unlock the river's latent potentials for the benefit of generations of the region's residents and visitors."

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