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Creating Community

Lisa Jennings
Pisgah National Forest

On a hot, southern Sunday afternoon, more than 500 people from the town of Old Fort, North Carolina, stood on a freshly laid Pisgah National Forest trail as four young girls cut a green ribbon, signaling the opening the first six miles of what will be 42 miles of new trail.

But the ribbon cutting was more than ceremony. The act represented another major step in what people who live and work around Old Fort believe is a new, more inclusive history for rural Appalachia. One embodied in those four small hands on one pair of ceremonial scissors. Those four little girls are growing up knowing those trails and the surrounding public lands are open, inclusive and safe for them for free exploration, even when many people in their parents' generation didn’t feel the same growing up.

Four people in a stage.
A trail project on the Pisgah National Forest connected the agency and leaders from Old Fort, North Carolina, in a project that will culminate in a new 42-mile trail adjacent to the community. Each of the project leaders (from left) – Lavita Logan, Stephanie Swepson Twitty, Jason McDougald and Lisa Jennings – had their own dreams, finding each other by change and fortitude. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Cassell)

Welcome to Old Fort and the story of the Catawba Vale Collaborative. The tale is not just about those 42 miles. Or the rural development in a small, southern town long exposed to a struggling economy and separate lives.

This is not your typical trail project. 

In 2019, a collaborative formed to help shape Old Fort’s future. The partnership included four diverse leaders, each bringing a unique perspective and set of experiences to the table:

Lavita Logan, project coordinator for People on the Move for Old Fort, a Black-led community outreach organization under West Marion Inc.; Jason McDougald, executive director of Camp Grier, a non-profit camp committed to equal access to the outdoors; and Stephanie Swepson Twitty, chief executive officer of Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., a public benefit corporation focused on equitable small business development.

And then there is me. Lisa Jennings, recreation program manager for the Grandfather Ranger District on the Pisgah and an advocate for public lands that are open to all. I have the privilege of stewarding the public lands that surround Old Fort, the back yard of the community. Lands that are an asset, a reflection of the values of the people – and the people of Old Fort value trails. Trails can provide opportunities for common ground, intentionally welcoming a diversity of users that truly reflect the diversity of the communities we serve.

A woman a a girl walk through a newly constructed trail
Stephanie Swepson Twitty walks along a section of newly constructed trail with Eva Jennings, daughter of Forest Service employee Lisa Jennings. (Photo courtesy of White Blaze Marketing)

But only when we plan as partners with our community leaders.

At Old Fort, collaboration and progress didn’t happen overnight. But the long, personal paths each leader took led us to moments of change. And one such moment reimagines how a new generation can experience their public lands through trails. 

Growing up in Old Fort, Lavita preferred the forest to the playground. Her daddy took her each week to the swimming hole up Curtis Creek. Lavita’s childhood coincided with a time of abundance in Old Fort when textile manufacturing drove the town’s economy, supporting a lively downtown with shops and restaurants. But then the largest plant closed in 1985, and the town of 750 people fell into a downward spiral reminiscent of so many small towns across rural America. One by one, manufacturing moved overseas, stores closed and the once thriving town became a place where young folks moved away in search of better opportunities. For 20 years, little changed. In  2019, Lavita left her job at the town’s last remaining factory.

Jason came to Old Fort as director of Camp Grier, a 700-acre, residential summer camp. He envisioned connecting the camp to the surrounding Pisgah. As the son of an outdoor shop owner, he was raised with a strong appreciation for public lands and outdoor recreation. Overtime, he realized that the future of the camp also was tied to the future of Old Fort. So, he began to invest in the community, the town, and the trails, creating the G5 Trail Collective Program as its trail maintenance and advocacy brand supporting the 192,000-acre Grandfather Ranger District. 

Picture of Old Fort, North Carolina
Old Fort, North Carolina, got its name from Davidson’s Fort established prior to the Revolutionary War. Now on the list of North Carolina Mountain Heritage Trout Towns, the small community struggled for many years after the textile mills began to shutter and close. Recent efforts include various groups working together to help the town thrive. One project is a trail expansion on the adjacent Pisgah National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo)

While Stephanie built her career in Asheville, she always saw a future for her hometown, Old Fort. Like Lavita, she grew up exploring the forest, public land critical to the fabric of the town. Stephanie lived through seismic economic and social shifts. As a young girl she witnessed the closure of her beloved elementary school that served the black community as students were integrated into county schools. As an adult, she focused her business acumen 24 miles from home in Asheville, where opportunities led her to develop property in the oldest African American business district in the state. With that project complete, she began exploring ways to bring her model of equitable small business development to the rural setting of Old Fort. 

Each of those single sparks collectively helping to create an Old Fort of tomorrow – an idea that a community can be healthier and take advantage of economic opportunity when they organize together.

In 2018, a series of community forums helped give voice to everyone. Lavita became coordinator of the Old Fort Community Forum, and within that formed People on the Move for Old Fort to address engagement within communities of color. Stephanie joined with Lavita to empower fundraising and business support. Jason looked at the Pisgah National Forest and contacted me with what he saw as an opportunity: Connect the Blue Ridge Parkway to the town of Old Fort by extending the iconic Heartbreak Ridge Trail. But the more we talked, we realized that the opportunity extended beyond this one goal.

The Forest Service called a meeting with trail users with one simple question: “If we could build anything, what would we do?” From that, the initial 15 miles of trail were drawn on a map.

Trail map showing phase one of the Old Fort Trails Project on the Pisgah National Forest.
Trail map showing phase one of the Old Fort Trails Project on the Pisgah National Forest. (Map courtesy of Uproar Concept)

With that map in hand, Jason attended an Old Fort Community Forum and met Lavita. That meeting started a discussion about how trails can transform a town. About the same time, a diverse coalition of not-for-profit groups, individual citizens, and businesses in Old Fort gathered for the first time to focus on equitable development. That group embraced the trails project to build on the idea of a new future for Old Fort. Within this space, Lavita, Stephanie, Jason, and myself built the trust that laid the groundwork for the Catawba Vale Collaborative.

In this collaborative the project changed from a user-based project to a community-wide project. Listening to the community with an open mind and an open heart, the 15 miles we initially proposed grew to 25, then 42 as equity and accessibility became overarching goals. An outdoors for all. The partnership expanded to work beyond the trails, integrating education, affordable housing, outreach, and small business development.

Last October, the Forest Service approved all 42 miles of trails. In January, we broke ground on the first 6 miles, phase one of the Old Fort Trails project. In June, we opened the trails to the community. 

The project continues to grow and evolve. Stephanie now owns the only black-owned property in downtown Old Fort, with two buildings and 60,000 square feet of commercial space. Jason is developing destination lodging to serve the town and support the trails into the future. Lavita is organizing community activity days on the new trails.

The community of Old Fort celebrates at the new trailhead on the Pisgah National Forest.
The community of Old Fort celebrates at the new trailhead on the Pisgah National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Cassell)

The Pisgah is open to all, offering trails where visitors can hike, bike, ride horses, fish and participate in many activities. I’m proudly at the Forest Service planning for the next phase of trails in the Grandfather District to continue building the lifeline for Old Fort. Along with the Catawba Vale Collaborative, we are working to drive equitable community economic development through sustainable outdoor recreation. 

We talk a lot about the magic in Old Fort. But it’s not magic. It’s a recipe. The key ingredients are the people at the table. Stephanie often quotes Margaret Mead, and the saying became sort of a mantra for us: “Never doubt that a group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This is history in the making - and we are just beginning. Trails will drive the future of the town, both as common ground and an economic driver for everyone in the community. Built from the ground up.

Help us keep building. For more information on the project and ways to get involved, visit the G5 Trail Collective.

Four girls from Old Fort, North Carolina, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the grand opening of the first phase of the Old Fort Trails Project
Four girls from Old Fort, North Carolina, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the grand opening of the first phase of the Old Fort Trails Project, a grassroots-led effort that is helping to reshape the small town in Southern Appalachia. (Photo courtesy of Darrell Cassell)