County receives $50K to connect 31 miles of waterway

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The Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham has awarded $50,000 to Walker County to develop six access points along three local waterways over the next two years. The announcement was made at Tuesday’s meeting of the Walker County Commission by Elyse Peters and Jenny Short of the Walker County Health Action Partnership. The funding will be used to develop three new access points and improve three existing launches. The project, expected to be completed by January 2019, will connect 31 miles of navigable streams from Highway 257 in northern Walker County to Cordova’s Barney Beach in the south. “This grant would not have been possible without your partnership for the Walston Bridge Road access point, which proved to the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham the willingness of the community to work to build these spaces and to create public-private partnerships,” Peters told commissioners. Last year, the county, city of Jasper and state entities such as the Alabama Forestry Planning Committee collaborated to remove trash and vegetation, add a deceleration lane and parking lot and decrease the steepness of a Blackwater Creek access point on Walston Bridge Road. The project began with a $4,200 grant that the commission received from Cawaco RC&D, but more than $65,000 in funds and in-kind services had been used by the time the improvements were completed. The city of Cordova will be working with HAP throughout the spring and summer on three of the six access points that are part of the new Walker County Waterways project. The bulk of the improvements will come at Disney Landing, where HAP hosted a “Fall into Mulberry Fork” float trip in October. Plans for the access point include constructing a multi-use dock, adding restrooms and pavillions and making the launch handicapped accessible. Cordova Mayor Drew Gilbert, who has made increasing recreational opportunities a top priority of his administration in 2017, said he was “ecstatic” when he learned that HAP was including the city in a county-wide waterways project.

“We were fortunate to represent the city's interest at a grant review meeting, and we knew that with their planning and grant writing, combined with our manpower and equipment, that we were going to be able to make a real impact on outdoor recreation this year. We can only control so much as it relates to our recovery, and being able to push for top notch recreation is of highest priority for me,” Gilbert said this week. Improvements will also be made to an existing access point at Barney Beach, and a new launch will be created at Cane Creek near Neal Akins Bridge in Cordova. Additional access points will be developed at Highway 257 and Highway 69, and an existing access point at Lynn’s Park will also be part of the county’s new 31-mile blueway, or water-based trail. The waterways project is the latest dividend of an open space study spearheaded by HAP’s Livable Communities Priority Group in 2014. “It was an asset-based inventory looking at our entire community, what we have and how we could connect it. It was similar to a 20-year plan. We didn’t expect to hit breakneck speed so soon, but we saw the opportunities that were out there,” said Short, chairman of the Livable Communities Priority Group. The goal of the Livable Communities Priority Group is to facilitate outdoor recreation by improving physical spaces. After the open space study began, the county received $7,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to develop a master plan for Walker County Lake. Since 2015, the parking lot and entrance to the lake have been resurfaced, hiking trails around the lake have been expanded and kayaks have been made available for rent. In June 2015, the commission approved a resolution adding several waterways in Walker County to the Alabama Scenic River Trail, which led first to the improvements on Walston Bridge Road and now to the Walker County Waterways project. Short pointed out that HAP’s efforts are intended to not only encourage a healthier, more active lifestyle among county residents but also to build an outdoor recreation economy for the county. “People want to do things with their families that don’t cost $90 a day at Disney World. We’re getting back to nature and what’s important,” Short said.