By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
BRUCE – The Longleaf Trace, a 41-mile bike and walking trail between Hattiesburg and Prentiss, provides outdoor recreation and physical activity, brings tourism dollars to small towns and even entices potential new residents to the region.
Two proponents said Tuesday that a proposed rails-to-trails project between Bruce and Coffeeville could do the same for that area.
Longleaf manager Herlon Pierce said bicyclists from Jackson, Memphis and the University of Mississippi would be likely users.
“You’re also in an excellent location,” he said.
Pierce, along with Petal bicycle shop owner James Moore, spoke before a joint meeting of the Bruce and Calhoun City chambers of commerce Tuesday.
Pierce said surveys show that rail-trails are among the safest recreational venues.
Moore said some landowners along the Longleaf built fences to separate their property from the trail but soon realized its recreational value.
“After it was finished, those fences had gates in them,” he said.
The economic benefit from the trail can be large, Pierce said, noting the Longleaf has 75,000 to 100,000 unique users annually. Bike shops, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants have opened along its route.
Landowner Teresa Dunn said people already ride four-wheelers on the abandoned Bruce-to-Coffeeville railbed, often shooting on the right-of-way and littering.
“That kind of abuse will happen more often if you don’t develop the trail than if you do,” Moore said.
Dunn also voiced concern that people might use the trail as a passage to bring in alcohol from wet Yalobusha County to dry Calhoun County. Moore said the only sign of drinking on the Longleaf Trace is the occasional beer can.
“I have never once in my life seen alcohol used out there,” he said. “This is people who are health-oriented and family-oriented.”
Some in the audience were impressed with the Longleaf story.
“In these economic times, if there’s anything that will bring folks into the area, we need to do it,” said Bruce Alderman Lynn Parsons, who also owns one of the few retail businesses along the proposed route.
Calhoun County Supervisor Earnest Foxx was not at Tuesday’s meeting but said afterward, “If it were up to me and we had the money, I would develop it. I think it will be beneficial to the county.”
While Moore and Pierce said the Railbanking Act, which authorizes local governments to form districts to keep abandoned railroad properties for future use, “is settled law,” some in the audience weren’t convinced.
Glen Parker of Corinth owns land with his wife and sister-in-law that adjoins the railroad. Without the railbed, he said, the property would have nearly a mile of highway frontage.
The easement document, he said, “clearly says when the steel is taken up, it reverts at once to the grantors.”
Don Bell of Bruce sees the economic development possibilities but questions the wisdom of a seven-figure bike trail when local roads and bridges need repair.
The bottom line for Bell, a longtime forester and land surveyor, is his concern that the Railbanking Act victimizes property owners.
“I’m a great believer that a deed is a deed,” he said.