- Associated Press - Saturday, November 22, 2014

COVINGTON, La. (AP) - The Illinois Central railroad line that once tied St. Tammany’s towns together, carrying timber and people, stopped running in the late 1980s, but the trail built on the rail corridor is among the parish’s main lures. The 31-mile Tammany Trace draws about 300,000 visitors a year and appears atop lists of why the parish’s quality of life is high.

The paved asphalt trail stretches from Covington through Abita Springs, Mandeville and Lacombe before ending just west of Slidell. Along the way it passes through pine forests and neighborhoods, past swampy, lily pad-covered ponds and many creeks and bayous. The “trailheads” in each municipality are hubs of activity, featuring concerts, farmers markets and other community gatherings.

The parish recently celebrated the Trace’s 20th anniversary events commemorating its creation two decades ago and its impact on the parish. There were music and brunch in Mandeville, wildlife and outdoor activities at Camp Salmen near Slidell and a concert at Heritage Park in Slidell, with other events in Covington and Abita Springs.

EYESORE OR OPPORTUNITY

The Trace has become such a part of north shore life that it seems almost inconceivable that it might not have happened, but political opposition and a tight time frame nearly derailed the project.

That would have been a disaster for the parish’s rapidly growing population, says Kevin Davis, now director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, but at the time a St. Tammany Parish police juror and later the first parish president.

Davis was one of the driving forces behind the Trace’s creation. It was sometimes a tough sell, he said.

After the railroad notified authorities it would abandon the line, Davis, who represented a Slidell-area Police Jury district, began trying to figure out what could be done with the corridor that stretched from Covington east to Abita Springs, then south to Mandeville and then east again through Lacombe and on to Slidell.

Davis recalled thinking, “The parish was developed because of that railroad. There ought to be some way to save it.” He couldn’t keep the railroad, so Davis, consultant Bill Oiler and some others began researching other options.

A VISION BORN

Davis realized the line could be used for a “rails to trails” project, part of a national campaign to turn abandoned railway corridors into walking or cycling paths. He went to see such a trail in Pinellas County, Florida. “We came back and said, ‘This is something we need for us,’ ” he said.

He said skeptics included other police jurors and the parish’s legal counsel. “I just pleaded, and they said, ‘We are going to go with it,’” he recounted.

Unlike most other rail lines, where the land under the tracks remains the property of individual landowners, the Illinois Central line had one owner. The railroad had sold it to local businessman Richard Blossman. Its appraised value was $2.4 million.

Davis persuaded Blossman in the second half of 1992 to sell the corridor to the parish for $1.4 million cash, with the remaining $1 million a donation to the parish.

Blossman set one condition: The deal had to close by the end of the year.

Davis thought he could get federal highway money, but it would have to come through the state - no easy task. Fellow Police Juror Steve Stefancik helped.

“During Christmas vacation, I took some extra days off, and I was in Baton Rouge every day,” Stefancik said. One day, parish officials were able to get every official who still had to approve the project in one room and convince them all to sign.

One official told Davis he had never seen anything move through the state’s red tape that fast.

“We left there about 3 p.m. on Dec. 30 and called a press conference for 5 o’clock” to announce the deal, Stefancik said.

SELLING THE IDEA

Officials weren’t the only doubters.

He said some residents worried that the trail would bring thieves, others that the many street crossings would endanger cyclists or joggers.

“There were a couple of meetings where I thought they would throw tomatoes at me,” Davis said.

An early supporter was developer Bruce Wainer, who still serves on the board of the Tammany Trace Foundation, the nonprofit group that oversees the Trace. Wainer said he was excited by Davis‘ “brilliant” vision.

“We started focusing on the cultural aspect of it,” Wainer said, such as using concerts and other events to promote the arts.

In September 1994, the Trace’s first section, an 8.5-mile stretch from Mandeville to Abita, opened with a bike ride. It wasn’t paved yet, but it was the first public look at what would become the current version of the Trace.

A BIG IMPACT

The Tammany Trace draws people to the parish and has a marked, though anecdotal, impact on the parish’s economy, according to St. Tammany Economic Development Director Don Shea.

“When there is an event at the (Covington) trailhead, the businesses along Columbia Street do better,” he said. “Same thing in Abita and Mandeville - farmers markets and art sales go there,” he said.

What’s more, he said, the Trace also attracts people who may become residents.

“We are trying to promote this place as a good outdoorsy lifestyle,” Shea said. “The Trace is the spine of that.”

It’s not without costs. A 2-cent sales tax to maintain parish roads provides about $960,000 per year to maintain the Trace.

Another $165,000 in administrative costs is funded through cell tower leases, according to a parish spokeswoman.

There are plans or discussions to extend the Trace, both on the eastern end into Heritage Park in Slidell and west from Covington and then down the La. 21 corridor toward Interstate 12. Without a railroad corridor to follow, other possibilities will have to be explored, such as utility rights-of-way, Wainer said.

The idea of a paved path is no longer as controversial as it was in 1992, however.

For Davis, Stefancik and Wainer, this is not a surprise.

“It’s doing just what I hoped it would do,” Davis said. “My hope was that it would be the community’s trail.”

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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