By JOSH NEWTON
Participants of the multi-county Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks grassroots movement believe the city of Tahlequah’s capital-improvements proposal sets a standard for other regional communities to follow.
Greenway was formed in 2010 as an effort to link parks, recreational areas, and conservation sites that extend from State Highway 412 south to Interstate 40. Leaders behind the area movement have been seeking to create a collaborative movement to connect conservation lands while also giving families a natural outdoor experience.
The project is also expected to draw more tourists and environmentally friendly businesses to this region of the state.
Though the city’s proposed $21 million capital-improvements project wasn’t designed with the Greenway project in mind, Greenway co-founder Kathy Tibbits believes some of the city’s ideas fit well into the larger grassroots movement and will help cast northeast Oklahoma as a “destination to explore, not just for a day trip, but for as many days as one can stay here.”
“Tahlequah has always been the city connected to Illinois River tourism, and the river contributes millions to Tahlequah’s economy annually,” said Tibbits.
Tahlequah Mayor Jason Nichols said the city’s proposed tax increase would fund creation of an extensive parkway, running from Norris Park near Northeastern State University, south to where the city’s transfer station is currently located. Aside from the proposed tax project, the city has also been purchasing land along that corridor, and is set to move the transfer station to its new facility on the northwestern side of the city.
“There was no joint effort between the city and the Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks project to develop what’s in the city’s tax proposal, but they recognized what we are doing fits exactly into the larger picture of what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Nichols. “The city proposal would include bike trails, pedestrian trails and jogging trails. The trails will help connect travelers from the north side of the city to the south side and will take some bikers and joggers off the streets to help alleviate some traffic issues.”
But Nichols said the project also focuses on beautification of the area, connects residents to parks and cultural sites, and encourages physical fitness.
“We see it is being dual purpose,” said Nichols.
City councilors recently approved a resolution citing the city’s support of the overall Greenway project. City Planning and Development Director Doug Moore told councilors he considers the city’s proposed work along Town Branch Creek perhaps the most important economic-development project the city could undertake.
“Essentially what we’re doing is, we’re looking at creating more opportunities for recreation and improvements to our lifestyle, and in addition to that, it helps attract tourism that we also rely on heavily,” said Moore. “If we create a great greenway with these recreational opportunities, it also encourages people to move here, because not only do they know it’s a great place to live, but because they can get out and enjoy it.”
Greenway of the Cherokee Ozarks steering committee member Nancy Garber believes the city’s plan could be considered essential to the larger plan being laid out by Greenway of the Ozarks participants.
“When it comes to the capital improvements proposal, it fits into the Greenway idea of getting people more connected with the environment, protecting our resources and cultural sites, and getting us back into the mindset of being outdoors, interacting with our friends and family instead of being in front of a TV or a digital device,” said Garber. “Tahlequah is unique and has the opportunity to lead the way in terms of communities looking at ways to progress and make themselves more appealing and more progressive.”
Garber hopes other communities that lie within the reach of the Greenway project take a look at Tahlequah and begin to consider their own contributions to the overall idea.
“I hope others use Tahlequah as a role model and decide what is important to them,” said Garber.
Of the $21 million capital-improvements proposal, which goes before city voters Jan. 8, 2013, about $1 million would be used to create the trails and parks along Town Branch Creek.
“You can look at what happened around Norris Park when we were able to invest there, through the generosity of a donor; if we’re able to reinvest in this community the length of Town Branch Creek essentially, then I think we will be able to mimic that success in most of the north and south axis of town, and I think that would be transformational for this community,” said Nichols.