‘Could this be a game changer?’

Three years ago, Bob Goehring had just returned from a lengthy vacation to Macon, France, to visit his daughter Rachel. During that trip, he biked or walked every day on elaborate trails.

He could ride two blocks and get on a trail that ran parallel to the Saone River and could ride three miles into Macon. Or, he could go the opposite direction and ride 30 miles into Lyon. From there, he had another trail he could take down to the Mediterranean Sea.

When he got back to LaGrange, he knew he wanted to live somewhere like that — a place he could go walk or bike for dozens of miles at a time.

When he returned to the United States, Goehring emailed LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton and Troup County Commission Chairman Patrick Crews July 18, 2015, asking them what it would take to get something similar in LaGrange. Toward the end, he said that his family had considered moving and that biking/walking trails would be a factor in making that decision.

“That’s what really did it, getting up every morning doing that,” Goehring said. “The last line [in my letter] was 100 percent true. We are going to live somewhere where this exists, and we’d love for it to be LaGrange. I’d love for that to happen [here].”

As it turns out, that email was the beginning of The Thread Trail, the 29-mile walking and biking trail that will soon connect throughout the City of LaGrange.  Two phases of the trail have already been completed, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the third phase in late May.

Goehring had pursued something similar decades ago but the idea never got anywhere. This time around he had low expectations, just because he knew it would be a large undertaking.

“First, I want an honest reply,” Goehring wrote in the email. “Do you agree that this could be a game-changer for our community going forward?”

If the answer to that question was yes, he wanted to meet with both men, asking how to get it started. That meeting took place about two weeks later, on Aug. 3, 2015. Goehring, Crews, Thornton and County Manager Tod Tentler had breakfast at Gus’ Grill and talked about how a trail system would work in LaGrange.

“What impressed them the most, I wasn’t asking them to do it. I told him we will do it, and I will lead the thing,” Goehring said. “I’ll get a group together, just help me get the right people in the room. Obviously, it’s going to have to involve both the city and the county. There’s no way we could build this thing without a bunch of government stuff.”

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said he doesn’t believe “transformative” projects like The Thread should be government led. He said that’s why The Thread is coming together so well — the community is leading the effort.

“I think the city and the elected officials should serve in a supporting role for citizen-led initiatives,” Thornton said. “What I said to Bob was, ‘Bob, you go out and get a group of people together who are interested in this topic and are willing to put in the time and the effort to develop a plan. We can help, providing some staff support. If you are willing to do that, then I’m willing to support you.”

Goehring did exactly that.

“The Friends of The Thread did the legwork. They spent the time and energy putting the plan together and brought it back to the mayor and council,” Thornton said. “The mayor and council were unanimously in support of it because it was really a citizen-led initiative.”

From there, it started really moving. Goehring met with late LaGrange City Manager Tom Hall. Goehring said when he walked in the room to meet with Hall about the trail, Hall’s first words were “Where have you been?”

Hall, an avid cyclist, already had an idea and wanted to put a trail on an abandoned utility line from Grantville to West Point. Goehring said James Emery and Patrick Bowie took a 4-wheeler on the trail Hall suggested and ultimately determined it wasn’t a feasible plan.

Still, from the beginning Hall was a major factor in the project. Goehring said Hall also had a plan in place to do a mini-version of the Model Mile at Granger Park.

Ultimately, a group was formed to lead the project. Goehring dubbed them “The Trailblazers” — this was months before “The Thread” ever became the trail’s name — and they started considering their options. Hall, Bowie, Susan Bowie, Mike Honnold, Rick Brock, Leigh Threadgill, Emery, Tracie Hadaway and Goehring were all members of the original group and are listed in the meeting notes for the group’s October 2015 discussion.

“We started putting together dream ideas and things like that,” Goehring said. “By the end of November, we realized we needed help.”

At that point, The Path Foundation, which has built hundreds of miles of trails in Georgia, was brought in to discuss construction and the feasibility of a walking trail in LaGrange.

By April 2016,  the Thread name was selected. The name was one of the products of the Path Steering Committee, along with the master plan. Goehring said once that name was mentioned, no other title seemed to fit.

In July 2016, a community town hall meeting was held and the crowd was significant.

“We had 350 people, and we had expected 150,” Goehring said. “According to the old-timers, there’s never been anything like it before here that has come close to that level of support. There were really no naysayers. They were all there in support.”

Goehring said the first donation for The Thread came from his own grandson, Jonny, who gave $4. Jonny is Rachel’s son and gave the donation during Goehring’s time in France the next summer.

“According to his parents, he came up with this all by himself,” Goehring said.

Of course, most of the funding for The Thread has come from SPLOST. During the 2017 election, voters passed a SPLOST vote that allowed Troup County and LaGrange to split $10 million toward the trail.

In July 2017, the first part of The Thread — named the Model Mile — opened at Granger Park. Natalie Hale, director of the Friends of The Thread group, said her first job after being hired in February 2017 was to put the project out to bid for Granger Park.

“We were pouring concrete at the baseball game during the state playoffs,” Hale said. “We had our concrete machine out there. We turned it off for the national anthem and continued on after. They poured until 10 o’ clock at night.”

There’s no official counter for how many pedestrians use The Thread, but there’s a plan to figure out just how many. Regardless, it’s clear from the number of people on the trails — especially on weekends and holidays — that it’s getting a lot of use.

“People who would never meet are meeting on the trail,” Hale said.

The second segment, which starts at the Mike Daniel Recreation Center, opened in May 2018. The third segment is expected to open by the fall, barring weather or other factors slowing the pace.

“We picked Granger Park because it was already a well-used recreation area. The most used in town,” Hale said. “That was our Phase One and the reason we didn’t just go on and connect to that is because we wanted to go on the other side of town and build a trail. People will want it to connect.”

In three years, The Thread has gone from an idea to partially completed. By the time the 10-year project is complete in 2027 — assuming the funding is available through SPLOST and other donors — it’ll span 29 miles and connect all around the city.

There’s also art being added to portions of The Thread. The artist, Chuck Moore, builds structures from the old machinery from the mills.  One of his works was put in front of Sweetland Amphitheatre at the end of May.

Thornton said he hears from visitors that they are impressed by The Thread, especially because it’s in a small city like LaGrange.

“It’s an amenity that a lot of people will use and enjoy and that will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future,” Thornton said.

“The second thing is I think it makes a statement about the community and that we are investing in these quality of life amenities, the fact that we are trying to encourage people to get out of their homes and offices and come out and socialize and exercise.”

Hale said as soon as The Thread is long enough, they plan to have a Peachtree City Road Race qualifier.

“We’ll eventually have a marathon, and we plan on having big races,” Hale said.

She also said the 29 miles planned for The Thread could just be the start.

“They are talking about connecting the trails throughout Georgia,” Hale said. “That’s just the beginning.”

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