Forum: Greenway is smart SPLOST expenditure

Greenways are a great investment for our community. The 2011 special-purpose, local-option sales tax will, if approved by voters in November, provide the funds needed to build out the heart of the greenway in Athens-Clarke County – extending it south along the Oconee River, past the cemetery, to College Station, and east across the river.

The expansion will give University of Georgia students and employees a safe way to commute to work on an off-road path, avoiding the bottlenecks of College Station and Lexington roads from Eastern Athens-Clarke County. It also connects with a bridge that UGA plans to build across the river to South Campus, and will help us get closer to our eventual goal of a greenway that spans the county, from Sandy Creek to the botanical garden.

What do Valdosta and Roswell, Anniston, Ala., and Gainesville, Fla., have in common? They’re all of similar population to Athens, yet each has built more miles of multiuse greenway in the past five years than we have. The Big Creek Greenway now extends more than 13 miles through Roswell and Alpharetta.

Even little Darien, in South Georgia’s McIntosh County, has built the 7-mile long Highlander Trail in the past few years. In fact, with only 3.5 miles of paved greenway, we lag behind many other communities in the South and in the nation in developing this important part of our transportation, recreation and community health infrastructure.

When people think about multiuse greenways, they usually think about transportation choices: places to walk, bike and run. And that’s an important part of a greenway’s mission – to give people a safe, healthy option for getting to and from work, school and other destinations, and a great place to exercise. But there is much more to greenways like our North Oconee River Greenway than just transportation.

Greenways are linear parks that also promote conservation of our natural resources, provide a corridor for wildlife, and provide an opportunity for education about the river and our history. If you haven’t done so already, please take a walk or family bike ride on the greenway along Willow Street, across the river and through Dudley Park. Have breakfast at Mama’s Boy, or lunch at Weaver D’s. The colorful and informative interpretative signs will teach you and your family a lot about Athens’ history. Or, park at Sandy Creek Nature Center and enjoy the greenway as it winds south along the river.

Greenways also are a critical part of improving our community’s health. Georgia is at the epicenter of a national obesity epidemic, and as a family physician, I know it isn’t enough just to tell my patients to exercise. We have designed our communities around the automobile and are paying the price. It’s critical that we give children, families and the elderly safe, pleasant places to walk, bike and roll.

Some folks have the mistaken impression that we’ve spent huge amounts of money on greenways in Athens. In fact, in the past 15 years, we have spent only about $3 per resident per year on greenway infrastructure, supplemented by more than $1.5 million in federal transportation funding. This lags behind the investment made by many similar communities in Georgia and neighboring states.

And make no mistake – when companies look to relocate to Athens, they look at more than just highways and tax incentives. Smart companies want to hire intelligent, creative people who value quality of life and are healthy enough to work. Greenways are a great point of pride for our community as we show it off to potential businesses. Athens also has become a retirement mecca – and in addition to doctors, hospitals and cultural amenities, those retirees want a safe, pleasant place to exercise. Greenways provide that place. There is ample evidence that greenways increase property values and have other important economic benefits.

The paved portion of the North Oconee River Greenway currently runs from Sandy Creek Nature Center, along the river, through Dudley Park, and ends at the new Medical College of Georgia/University of Georgia partnership site on Williams Street. We already have funding to extend the trail to the edge of the Oconee Hill Cemetery on the east side of the river, and east from the Chicopee complex to the East Athens Community Center.

Please support SPLOST 2011. It has important economic development and community safety projects, and the greenway project will improve our quality of life, attract businesses and make us a healthier community in step with other towns throughout the South.

• Dr. Mark H. Ebell is a family physician and member of the faculty in the University of Georgia College of Public Health. He serves as chair of the Oconee Rivers Greenway Commission and chair of the Clarke County Board of Health.

Originally published in Athens Banner Herald.

Posted October 5, 2010.