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March 6, 2014

“First blaze” of Florida Trail marked for historic White Springs-Stakeholders meeting defines community assets

Jasper — On Friday, Feb. 28, the town of White Springs hosted an eco-tourism regional stakeholder’s meeting at the Nature and Heritage Tourism Center and also celebrated the “first blaze” of the Florida Trail Association (FTA) route change through the town.

Attendees

The meeting was well attended and a lot was accomplished. Among those in attendance were Mayor Helen Miller, Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie, Khrys Kantarze from the Stephen Foster Citizen’s Support Organization (CSO), Town Manager Bob Farley, Megan Eno and Ian Barlow from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Edwin McCook, land manager for Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), Sharon and Mick Shea of Suwannee Bicycle Association (SBA), Samantha Prueter from Hitson Realty in Jasper, Dennis Price from the Hamilton County Tourist Development Council (TDC) and Suwannee Valley Marketing Group, Robin Luger, the trail coordinator for the area, and Michelle Waterman from Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, among others.

Competitive Florida Partnership

Of the tourism center, Miller explained, “We’re in the process of reprogramming from an information center to an information center-plus, and you are all part of it. We are a group of people who care about eco-tourism in this region,” she said to the group.

Miller explained that White Springs was selected as one of four rural communities in the state of Florida to participate in the Competitive Florida Partnership pilot program through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, who is offering technical resources, funding and other financial resources for the pilot program.

“The primary underpinning of that whole program is to know your assets,” said Miller. “If you’re going to do something with your community, you’ve got to deal with reality and work with the assets in the community and you’ve got to know who you are. White Springs is about our natural, cultural and rural resources. That is who we are.”

Stakeholder comments

Kantarze said the CSO has recently applied for a grant titled “Off the Beaten Trails” and if the grant is awarded, the CSO will have funding to promote hiking, biking and horseback riding trails at Stephen Foster and Big Shoals.

Town Manager Bob Farley joked and said he doesn’t do much “other than help and assist one of the greatest mayors I’ve ever had the pleasure to work under.” 

Farley said he has attended many economic development conferences throughout the state, including a boot camp in Okeechobee last year with Governor Rick Scott. After that boot camp, Farley said White Springs was selected for the pilot program.

Megan Eno, aside from working for the U.S. Forest Service, is also the acting administrator for the Florida National Scenic Trail.

“I’m very excited to be here to capitalize on this energy and help you spend some of this grant money,” she said with a chuckle.

Eno explained that one of the most popular trails in the country is the Appalachian Trail because it winds through so many trail towns that welcome hikers and offers them places to re-supply.

“I think that White Springs is going to be the Florida National Scenic Trail’s first real true trail town and I’m excited to be a part of that,” said Eno.

McCook has been an avid proponent of trails for over 20 years, he said, and was part of a group who instituted the bike trails in the region.

With all the road riding bicyclists, mountain bikers, off road cyclists, hikers and river paddlers who frequent the town, McCook said, “White Springs is an excellent trail town and we need to take advantage of it,” said McCook.

“This area has so much potential,” said SBA President Sharon Shea.

One of the things the SBA has done in recent years is create a new 8-mile trail inside Stephen Foster park, which they were able to get designated as a National Scenic Trail. The SBA also maintains another 45 miles of off road trails in the White Springs area.

“We also have over 10 cycling routes, over 200 miles of road riding for people to take,” said Shea,

Ian Barlow from the U.S. Forest Service said he helps with the building of infrastructure on the trails.

“A lot of it is bridge building where we use projects as an outdoor classroom to work with volunteers and youth,” said Barlow.

Dennis Price from the TDC, aside from his work with White Springs, explained that he is trying to get some energy going in the Jennings area along the Alapaha corridor.

“It’s really kind of a unique eco-system,” said Price. “The river goes dry, there’s a stream that drains into a sinkhole and disappears in a very spectacular fashion.”

He said he has been trying for a couple years to get the county to acquire 70 acres on a lease agreement with SRWMD, and then try to get a campground/adventure park established.

“I’m getting closer,” said Price.

He also said he’d like to see the Florida Trail Association make an effort to create a corridor in that area with its unique hardwood, deep ravines and springs.

“It’s a very beautiful area that is very under-utilized,” Price said.

Park Manager Michelle Waterman, who went to school for recreation and tourism, and is a certified interpretive guide, said she is really excited about the trail venture.

Vice Mayor McKenzie said when he first visited White Springs 30 years ago to do some biking, he thought the town was on the verge of something big.

“Now, 30 years later, that’s about to come true,” said McKenzie.

McCook added that for a project to succeed you need a “champion of the cause” and he credited Mayor Miller for getting the ball rolling and moving forward, along with the town council and the TDC.

Miller said, “It does take a village to do anything important. I think what we have here is a representation of the major players who have a commitment now.”

McCook said the Okefenokee Swamp, where the headwaters of the Suwannee River are located, is interested in connecting to the Florida National Trail. The Suwannee River, he explained, has National Wildlife refuges at both ends and eight state parks in between. One thing under discussion now is designating the Suwannee River as a National Blue Way.

Miller said Lake Park, Ga. is also looking to hook into the trail along U.S. 41 into Jennings.

Jeff Glenn on the FTA

Jeff Glenn is the regional representative for the Florida Trail Association and oversees trail coordination and maintenance, routing issues for North Florida and he has been on the job for six months and has been working with the town and SRWMD on a regular basis.

“It’s exciting that today is the day we’ll paint the first blaze and actually start the process of moving the trail through town,” said Glenn. “Moving the trail is actually real easy. All it takes is a can of paint, but it’s a lot more than just moving the trail. White Springs has a lot of potential and we’re going to make something great happen.”

The FTA was a much larger organization in the mid 2000’s, Glenn explained, and they had a Gateway Community Program in place at that time and a lot of communities signed up for it, but the program fell apart.

“Nothing ever came about except for signs,” said Glenn. “In my opinion, White Springs is really the only town that should have become a Gateway community. It’s the only town that’s poised to become a Gateway community now, as it was years ago. I wish that more had been done at the time.”

The most glaring loss about the existing trail, which currently passes by the tourism center, is that it doesn’t go through the historic areas of White Springs, Glenn explained.

“In any trail town, that’s kind of the most important part,” said Glenn.

Mayor Miller had the honor of painting the symbolic “first blaze” on a signpost on US 41 and CR 136 just outside the tourism center. The old route will become defunct and with the new route going through town, White Springs will actually be a legitimate trail town and not just a Gateway community, Glenn said. The economy in other trail towns throughout the country, Glenn said, is booming because of the trails.

Since the Gateway program has disintegrated, Glenn said, White Springs is the only town that the FTA and the Florida Forest Service are working on at the moment, along with the other partners in the room. New signage to clearly mark trail heads are also in the works.

Historical postmark program

The second in a series of U.S. Post Office historic postmarks in the town of White Springs will feature the Florida Trail Association. The first pictorial postmark was the SBA’s IDIDARIDE XX (20), which was a success as collectors across the country requested at least 20 postmarks per day, according to visiting Postmaster Pam Pettijohn.

“Word is definitely getting around,” said Pettijohn, who was on hand at the meeting to show off the Florida Trail Association postmark. “For our little town and our little post office it’s been overwhelming.”

More pictorial postmarks in the works are the Wild Azalea Festival, the Floridan Aquifer System, the 62nd Florida Folk Festival. The goal is to have a minimum of 12 postmarks for calendar year 2014, Miller said. The artwork from all the postmarks will then be used on postcards, note cards, T-shirts and posters to help brand the tourism center in White Springs as the eco-tourism capital of the world.

“We have lofty goals, but the governor said his goal is to make Florida the tourism destination of the world,” said Miller. “Well, North Florida should be the eco-tourism destination of the world.”

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