A 1-mile stretch of demolished railroad tracks in Beaufort has caught the attention of the head of media conglomerate Cox Enterprises.
Jim Kennedy's family has owned the Clarendon Plantation in Grays Hill for 50 years. When he heard about the proposed Spanish Moss Rail-Trail walking and bike path from Port Royal to the Whale Branch River, he wanted to give the plan an initial push and set it up for long-term success.
"These trails are wonderful, and with the kind of weather we have in the Beaufort area and the number of cyclists we have here, it would just get such use," Kennedy said.
His interest has led to the offer of up to about $1.2 million in grants and the help of an experienced staff of path builders to kickstart the long-discussed project.
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Kennedy and his wife, Sarah, are from Atlanta, where they are on the board of the PATH Foundation, which has helped build more than 200 miles of paths in Georgia. The James M. Cox Foundation has donated millions of dollars to PATH over the years.
The Kennedys approached PATH's executive director, Ed McBrayer, about the Spanish Moss Rail-Trail, and he visited Beaufort last week. Through an intergovernmental agreement, the organization will provide planning and design services for the first mile, between Allison and Depot roads in Beaufort.
But that's only part of the help headed Beaufort's way.
"They ultimately gave us a grant to try and help the Friends of the Spanish Moss Rail-Trail down there and see if we can't get at least a mile of it on the ground so everybody can see what it looks like and hopefully generate a lot of interest," McBrayer said.
A $567,000 grant will pay for design and construction of the first mile, which McBrayer hopes will be under way by fall. A second grant of up to $600,000 will be available to match money raised by the Friends of the Spanish Moss Rail-Trail.
"I thought perhaps if we made some challenge grants ... we can get it going and get the kind of critical mass needed," Jim Kennedy said.
The city of Beaufort and the county have obtained grants totaling $1.2 million that can now be used for subsequent legs of the proposed 14-mile path. Initial designs by the county were for a 12-foot-wide paved path connecting neighborhoods and attractions.
McBrayer's hope is that PATH's experience will not only quicken the pace of the project, but set up everyone involved with the knowledge to succeed. To that end, the foundation is using as many local companies as possible, he said.
"We're trying to mentor the Friends group down there so they don't have to make any of the mistakes we've made and they get this off to a good start," he said.
As for that first mile, Jim Kennedy said he can't wait to get his bike wheels on the pavement. But his enthusiasm does not stop there.
"It'd be unbelievable if we had a trail that went all the way from Beaufort to U.S. 17, all the way to Charleston," he said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufort.