Conway spending $40K to study possible hiking/biking trail connecting city and CCU

For the last six months, Coastal Carolina University senior Jason Lee has worked on an Horry County biking survey.

One of questions the survey asked was which destinations would be better served by bicycle paths.

Near the top of the list? Coastal and Conway.

Specifically, respondents want a path between the campus and the city. Lee said students would appreciate that, too.

“The students would be interested in it,” he said. “It takes a safer bike path lane to Conway and back to the university.”

City officials hope he’s right.

After years of talking about building a biking/hiking trail between the campus and downtown Conway, city leaders are making an investment toward that goal.

During a budget retreat last week, city council members agreed to set aside $40,000 to study what is needed to build such a path, what the route should be and how much it would cost.

“It is such a dream,” Mayor Alys Lawson said. “It just truly makes me excited that you could do something that would have that kind of an impact for a long, long time.”

Lawson said one possible route could run from the property near Lake Busbee to Coastal, but she said there are other conservation lands in the area that may make for a better trail.

“There are a couple different options,” she said. “We need to get a little more fine tuned into where that access point really could take place.”

City Administrator Bill Graham said a trail would make the downtown area more accessible to Coastal students. The study will look at what are the most practical — and financially feasible — routes.

“It’s something that I know the officials with CCU have been interested in,” he said. “We’ve talked about it for several years here at the city. Hopefully if we get a study of that type, it would help [the concept] become a reality.”

Officials with the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge have also been closely following the trail discussions. The refuge has nearly 600 acres designated for recreation off S.C. 544 near the Coastal campus. About half of that land is being used by the public now and the other half will open later this year. Biking/hiking trails run throughout the property.

Refuge Manager Craig Sasser said the idea of a Coastal-Conway connection first came up several years ago when refuge officials were researching the potential impact of sea level rise. During that time, local leaders and conservationists began discussing ways to develop a “wildlife corridor” that would run along the Waccamaw River and connect to the city.

As budgets have tightened in recent years, Sasser said the talk has calmed, but he’s encouraged that Conway officials haven’t given up on the proposal.

“They have offered to take the ball and run with it,” he said. “The idea is to preserve the waterfront within the city limits [and] to mesh that with wildlife corridors and hopefully [create] a conduit for recreation that might bring students from Coastal Carolina ... over to the city of Conway. One of our main missions is connecting people with nature.”

Sasser said refuge officials still will help the city with planning the trail and he remains optimistic about the possibilities.

“We’ve got a great combination of partners,” he said. “I just have to believe that in the long run, when things pick up, budgets get better, that all of this will come together.”

News of Conway’s decision to pursue the study pleased Sharon Thompson, a professor of health promotion at Coastal. She’s working on the cycling study with Lee, who is one of her students.

“Conway was one of the top responses for where people would like to ride,” she said. “I’m glad to hear that Conway’s going to capitalize on that.”

Apart from Coastal students, the Grand Strand has a growing community of biking enthusiasts. At least three cycling clubs have formed since 2010. Some group rides have doubled in size.

Developing the Conway-CCU connection, Lee said, would tap into that market and provide an economic boost to downtown businesses — and city coffers.

“It just takes more money into Conway,” he said. “It helps the city of Conway to build a better area and infrastructure and just generates money back into the city itself.”