An ambitious, 20-mile trail system that will thread across Villa Rica and fundamentally change the character of the community is now one step closer to reality — with an official name and defined plan.
Public comment on the privately funded project, now called The Gold Nugget Trail, concluded last Friday, setting the stage for the City Council to endorse the concept at its August meeting.
Once that green light is given, the gates will be open to private and business donors to begin raising funds for the project, which will cost an estimated $1 million per mile.
And to prime the donation pump in the future, a “model mile” of the trail is being planned to provide a public focus to the concept, which is hoped to rival Carrollton’s GreenBelt in scope and scale.
While the idea of a multi-use trail for Villa Rica has been discussed for years, the project now seems to have new energy, based on the success of the GreenBelt and the fact that the prime consultant on that project, the PATH Foundation, has signed on board with Villa Rica.
Because of them, and the Foundation’s design arm, the Kaizen Collaborative, the project now bears the name Gold Nugget Trail and a definitive, if preliminary, outline of trails. Those pathways were mapped out with the input of a steering committee and through public comments.
The result was a “master plan” originally presented at an April 18 public meeting. It has since been revised from a trail system of 12 miles to one that now contains 20.25 miles.
As envisioned, the trail system would be built out in a number of segments over an unspecified period of time.
If the project is funded and built out according to the master plan, it will stretch from Gold Dust Park to the west, then to Fullerville and dip through downtown. It would then reach eastward across the Douglas County line to the yet-to-be built Conners Road Park, encircling the whole of the Mirror Lake neighborhood in the process.
The trail would then head south in two parts, with a western leg headed through the neighborhoods below South Carroll Road. An eastern leg would cross I-20 at Tyson Road, then run west to connect with the leg at the Ashbury subdivision. The combined trail would then run south to the Villa Rica Civic Center and Sports Complex, better known as the V-Plex.
Those backing the project, however, stress that the exact route of the final trail depends on many factors, not the least of which involves the acquisition or surrender of rights of way from many private property owners.
But those property owners who do yield rights of way are likely to see an increase in the value of their land. One-time recalcitrant homeowners in Carrollton whose property now abuts the GreenBelt have seen a hefty increase in their homes’ resale value.
The concept of a greenway circling the city has evolved considerably since it was first envisioned 12 years ago. In 2006, the city was approved for a state grant to construct a multi-use trail running from the Fullerville Soccer Complex to Mirror Lake Boulevard via downtown. That initiative sputtered and died due to opposition for allocating taxpayer funds for such a project.
But while the city, through its Parks, Recreation and Leisure Services Department, has been leading in the push to develop this new trail concept, it is expected that taxpayers will have a minimum investment in the project. The bulk of paying for the work is expected to come from grants, or from private and corporate donations.
In February, the City Council approved a partnership with the Community Foundation of West Georgia, an organization that accepts donations on behalf of public entities and helps fund projects like the trail system through an investment pool.
State funds could be another funding source. At the same council meeting, the panel gave the green light for the parks department to apply for a Transportation Alternative Program (TAP) grant offered by the Georgia Department of Transportation.
TAP funding, according to the city, provides local recipients with “a minimum of $1 million” provided that the city match that grant by 20 percent of city funds.
Last June, the city completed the Fullerville Trailhead, located near the Fullerville Soccer Complex. That project was funded through another type of GDOT grant and is meant to be one of several entrance points for the trail.
Taxpayer funds have also been allocated so that the Georgia Department of Transportation can plan for a pedestrian tunnel underneath the proposed North Loop Bypass specifically for trail users.
To be completed as planned, the trail project would have to overcome a number of natural and man-made barriers. One of the latter is the Norfolk Southern Railway, whose busy tracks bisect the city.
While the trail is expected to loop through downtown, there are no concrete plans for how it is to do so. One concept, however, includes a pedestrian underpass that would cut underneath the tracks.
Such a rail underpass has been discussed since June 2016, when the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Partnership proposed an underpass as a way to unify the sides of town split by the railroad, part of its overall proposal to improve the livability of downtown.
Another part of the plan involves reaching from downtown to the Mirror Lake community, via a proposed Mirror Lake Connector. But that roadway — intended largely for pedestrians — is still on the planning board and faces its own set of construction hurdles.
Despite these obstacles, the plan has enthusiastic support from many quarters within the political and business leaders of the city, who foresee a day when Villa Rica could benefit from the Gold Nugget Trail, just as Carrollton has reaped rewards from the GreenBelt.
Carrollton’s GreenBelt is widely promoted by that city as both a destination and a lure for new business. Corporations, aware that their employees are interested in such quality-of-life enhancers as a trail system, use the GreenBelt as a recruitment tool.
To build public enthusiasm for the project, planners hope to first raise enough money to build a “model mile” of trail to provide a public focus for the plan. One way of doing that, planners suggest, is through a partnership with the Tanner Health System.
One potential route for the “model mile” would link the Fullerville Trailhead to Tanner’s Villa Rica campus, then on to the Villa Rica Public Library.
“You want to figure out a place where you’re going to have great success,” parks Director Vicki Coleman said at a June 21 public meeting on the project. “You really want the community to be able to get on board with the continued efforts. They get excited about one place, it’s active, it’s being used, and it makes it that much easier to continue to move through the project.”
Mayor Jeff Reese, who also attended the meeting, said that the City Council would hopefully make a public endorsement of the project when it is presented to them in August.
Such a public statement, he said, would be “a signal to donors that we are putting our stamp of approval on this.”