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Florida Today: Coast to Coast Connector means opportunity for Brevard

Imagine a trail that runs from St. Petersburg to the Canaveral National Seashore.

— Imagine cycling or hiking on a trail from St. Petersburg that traverses the middle of Florida on its way to downtown Titusville before ending at the Canaveral National Seashore.

“This is really a project whose time has come,” said Dale Allen, the executive director of the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation.

The estimated 250-mile trail — known as the Coast to Coast Connector, an enterprising state project to build a path for cyclists and hikers from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean — is getting closer to reality. It’s almost 75 percent finished, except for gaps totaling about 66 miles.

Those gaps are expected to be filled within five years, including two sections through North Brevard that could be completed within two years.

When open, it could help to transform downtown Titusville and parts of North Brevard, as it has other communities along the trail’s route.

Think Winter Garden, the Orange County community, with a bustling downtown full of restaurants, boutiques and lots of bike and pedestrian traffic thanks, in part, to the West Orange Trail. In downtown Dunedin, north of St. Petersburg, private business occupancy rates increased from 30 percent to nearly 100 percent thanks to the Pinellas Trail, according to Dunedin’s economic development office.

Soon, work will begin on a 12.8-mile, $8 million section of the trail in Brevard, north of Titusville. The city also is expected to launch work on a $3.6 million portion of the trail that will run through downtown with a bridge over Garden Street. It will connect with a 1.4 mile portion at Draa Road, where the city has plans to build a park.

“We look at it as an incredible economic opportunity,” Titusville Mayor Jim Tulley said. “It will come right through downtown. It think it will be a real plus for Titusville.”

Tulley said he believes that when riders arrive in downtown Titusville coming off the Coast to Coast Connector or the St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, which will head south from St. Augustine, they will want to stay a while. A downtown hotel will be needed.

“We want to make Titusville a destination,” he said.

Through Brevard

The Coast to Coast Connector starts on the west coast with the Pinellas Trail, turns north towards Brooksville then heads east.

There are still several gaps along the way, including unpaved or undeveloped trails in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Sumter, Lake, Orange and Brevard counties. The largest gap is between Sumter and Lake counties that would join the West Orange Trail with one in Brooksville.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which could be the last section to be completed, is in its planning and environmental study phase.

While the funding through the state Department of Transportation is in place to complete most of the gaps, the money does not cover trail head buildings, rest rooms and benches.

Allen said the foundation is hopeful that funding will come from other sources. Some of the amenities may have to come from local governments and private funds.

At Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Layne Hamilton, the refuge manager, said there is a planned path, but it still needs to be refined. It will take hikers and bicyclists through the refuge, Kennedy Space Center property and the Canaveral National Seashore. Because the complete route is not yet set, a cost estimate for that portion is not available.

“We came up with a really neat path,” Hamilton said. “There are sections where you won’t see any roads.”

Part of the trail will go through areas where the public has not previously been allowed.

“They’ll get to enjoy the refuge at its best,” Hamilton said. “It’s a great opportunity to share what’s neat about Merritt Island.”

Then there’sa wilderness section, a 7.1-mile trail from Aurantia Road in North Brevard to Volusia County.

Leigh Holt, a project manager for the Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization, is like a cheerleader as she talks about it.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it,” she said. “It’s exciting. Really for me, it’s the amazing difference we’re going to make in the community.”

Bikers and hikers will experience a very diverse trail here.

“We’ve got downtown, suburban section and wilderness section all in one trail,” Holt said. “I think our part is the most important part. We’re the terminus for the state trail system. We’re the only place in world where you can ride a bike and see a rocket launch.”

Allen agreed. “I think this Coast to Coast Connector is going to wake up a lot of people to the scenic beauty of the Space Coast,” he said.

Similarities 

Winter Garden, with a population of about 38,000, was not too different than Titusville (population 44,000) only a few years ago. But it has been transformed in recent years.

City leaders said their city was revived thanks, in part, to the trail. Other projects such as brick roads in downtown, landscaping, stop signs instead of traffic lights and outside dining where alcohol can be served, also played a role.

“That network of trails made a big difference,” Winter Garden City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said. “Our downtown has skyrocketed. Our properties have skyrocketed.”

Bollhoefer said that last year alone, property values in the city increased by more than 10 percent, more than other cities in Orange County.

“We’ve got the greatest trail in the world here,” said Ed Todor, owner of West Orange Bike in downtown Winter Garden. “We get people from all over the world.”

Tudor, who runs the shop with his son, Ed Tudor Jr., said he operated his shop in Ocoee before moving to Winter Garden 25 years ago, before the trail, when the city was a sleepy town.

“It made this little town,” he said of the trail. “It was no town, it was dead. Every other building was for rent.”

Bollhoefer, a 1975 graduate of Satellite High, however, cautioned that the trail alone won’t cause an economic boom in Titusville. At least, it didn’t in Winter Garden initially. The trail came in 1998.

It wasn’t until other improvements such as the landscaping came that the city began to see a difference. It took about three years.

Titusville, through its Community Redevelopment Agency, has spruced up downtown ahead of the trail.

“The day we finished it, you could tell the difference,” Bollhoefer said of Winter Garden’s landscaping efforts. “You could feel the life in this city. Titusville could do the same.”

The trail and the improvements in the city’s downtown area have made Winter Garden a destination not only for bicyclists and hikers, but others who come for other events and festivals.

A farmers market draws hundreds on Saturdays.

“We have a lot of people who come for the trail,” said Ashlee Grimes, co-owner of Larry and Harry’s Barbecue on West Plant Street in Winter Garden. “We also have a lot of festivals. We do a lot of extra stuff.”

Max Vankuiken, manager of Wheel Works bicycle shop, who is familiar with Brevard, said Titusville is similar to his community, and will benefit from trail users.

“The tourism for an area like Titusville will be good,” he said. “It’s going to be great for the area.”

Vankuiken said every community along the trail, when it’s complete, will benefit.

“The state has finally realized that there is going to be a lot of tourism because of the trails,” he said. “The beautiful thing is its a green industry.”

Trail advocates said Florida Senate president Andy Gardiner was instrumental in getting the Legislature to set aside $15 million in the Coast to Coast. Money to complete the project, estimated at $50 million, will be allocated over the next five years.

“People are going to have to stop and eat and come into our businesses,” said Jeff Themert, co-owner of Downtown Gallery in Titusville, imagining life after the trail is complete. “They may be biking through but they are going to have to stop.”

County Commissioner Robin Fisher, who serves on the county’s Tourism Development Council, said he believes the trail will bring additional visitors to the area.

“There is a whole tourism development to this, too,” he said. “People will travel to do this. People are going to stay and enjoy our community.”

By Norman Moody

Contact Moody at 321-242-3651 or nmoody@floridatoday.com Follow on Twitter @RNormanMoody

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