For a guy with such a tremendous impact on Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Montgomery County, Bill Ellenbogen is a modest man. The founding director and President for over 30 years of an organization called Friends of the Huckleberry Trail, Bill has overseen the expansion of that beloved community resource from one mile to fourteen miles in thirty years of effort. Following the recent ribbon cutting of the latest section, from Prices Fork Road to Glade Road in Blacksburg, Bill and I got together and talked about his passion for trail building and the economic prosperity of our community.
Bill got involved at the request of former Blacksburg mayor Roger Hedgepeth, charged with finding a way to obtain the necessary rights-of-way to extend the trail farther south from its original layout with a 90-degree turn near Margaret Beeks School. Bill had just finished his tenure as the president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, and was well entrenched with local business interests.
“We formed a group called PATH, or People Advocating The Huckleberry,” he said, “which needed to be multi-jurisdictional. Our goal was to stretch the trail from downtown Christiansburg in the south to the Jefferson National Forest north of Blacksburg. We wanted more than just a trail, but indeed a linear park. What that means is a series of parks and amenities that the trail would tie together.”
“Early in that process, Bill relied on the contributions and expertise of Ken Anderson at Anderson and Associates, an engineering firm in Blacksburg.
“We didn’t have any money and initially not much community support,” Bill admitted. “But it was like rolling a snowball down the hill. The farther along it went, the more people saw the potential and they wanted to come along. Ken was instrumental in that with engineering and planning support. The first land donation was under Ken’s impetus, land that became the Coal Heritage Park in Merrimac.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
“I never knew I was going to be the guy to lead this and I never knew it would take so long. I have always worked in the private sector, where if you want something done you go do it. It seemed like this should be a no-brainer, in that it benefited everybody. In the first couple of years, we got rights of way and some federal funding. We got it done from the Blacksburg Library to the New River Valley Mall.
“Going north through the Hethwood complex and across Prices Fork Road to Glade Road had new challenges, primarily rights of way acquisition. Our group and the governments involved never considered condemnation of private land for a bikeway; we thought it was wrong. We went to landowners and asked and the community responded.”
He said that getting to the National Forest on the north end of the corridor involved about eight property owners, including Virginia Tech. Hethwood already had a trail system. For the others north of Prices Fork Road, Ellenbogen approached them in 1996 and began obtaining rights-of-way. Long story short, working through all the access, money, and engineering issues took 23 years.
“So now we have a connection from the original trail near the US-460 bypass tunnel to the edge of the National Forest. It’s not my nature to give up. I worked with three different Parks and Rec directors, several town planners, three different Town Managers and a bunch of Town Councilmen in Blacksburg before we got it done. I really wondered if I’d live long enough to see it through. But I never considered quitting; I didn’t want the work to go to waste.
“You don’t do something like this for personal gain. While I get some kudos for heading it up, it’s a team effort. Part of the satisfaction I get when I go there and see the diverse community of users. There are babies in strollers. There are young children riding tricycles, older children riding bicycles, college students riding jogging and biking, fit people going fast, and then older people walking slowly. There is diversity in types of people, ages and demographics. It provides a safe environment for people to get out and exercise. I was an athlete at every level, from childhood through professional football. Now I’m an aging one. I hope getting out on the Trail will slow the inevitable fitness decline all of us experience.
“For a vibrant, complete community, you need art, culture, government, and commerce, but you also need outdoor recreation. It helps us compete with the San Franciscos, the Seattles, the Austins and the other quality places where people want to live. In that sense, the Huckleberry has been a great addition to the community.”
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.