Last year was an extremely eventful year for Great Falls. During 2023 we opened
the whitewater area, began work on the rail corridor trail and saw more plans
announced that tell us that things are well underway for the new State Park and all
the amenities that will be a part of that.
This year marks 23 years of the Town of Great Falls working toward Nature Based
Tourism and outdoor recreation as a major economic development tool for the Town
and surrounding areas.
Why so long, I’ve heard people ask? Vision for the future is something that does
take time and funding is always a problem for a small, rural town in South Carolina.
In 2000, Great Falls Home Town Association, at the request of the Town, held a
charette, which is basically a planning and brainstorming session with economic
development experts, various state agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the
citizens of Great Falls to develop an economic development plan that would propel
Great Falls into a sustainable economy. Over a 4 -5 day period, these people and
organizations met with more than 200 citizens of Great Falls to develop a plan. It
was determined that the former textile mills would not be suitable for modern
manufacturing because of their location, within neighborhoods, and the lack of rail
and appropriate roadways leading to those mill sites for distribution of products.
Because of the exquisite location of Great Falls along the reservoirs of the Catawba
River, nature based, and outdoor recreation was determined by those citizens to be
the logical way to revitalize the Town. It was determined that the islands would
make a great state or national park, the abandoned rail bed would be a perfect trail;
the area around Stumpy Pond should be conserved to remain pristine, and the Town
should work with Duke Energy on possible educational and tourism opportunities
surrounding their hydroelectric electric plants and reservoirs. From this process the
Nature Based Tourism Initiative was born.
Funding was an issue in the beginning. But work began in earnest to find funding
sources from grants, public funding and private funding.
In 2003, Duke Energy invited the Town and GFHTA to be a part of the stakeholder
process for the relicensing of the hydroelectric plants and dams along the Catawba
Wateree. The first license, a 50-year license, was issued to Duke for the system in
1958. Duke chose the stakeholder process, which was a three-year process, to
complete a Comprehensive Relicensing Agreement. It was submitted to Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2006. That agreement had to be
reviewed by FERC to get a license before the 1958 license expired in 2008. As part
of the licensing process, Duke must provide recreation on the waters that they use
for their commerce, and this was a great opportunity for Great Falls to negotiate for
things that were a part of the plan from that charette. We met every month for three
years and the recreation plan was a part of the license application. It took from 2006
to 2015 for Duke to receive the license, and there were a lot of extenuating
circumstances that caused that delay, from an endangered fish to a interbasin water
transfer agreement to petition to remove the dams, but once the license was issued,
plans began. As per the license, those recreation amenities were to be completed by
Duke in four five-year increments and that first 5 years was up at the end of 2022.
The whitewater areas opened up to the public on March 18, 2023 with close to 200
people coming to experience the first whitewater open to the public for more than
100 years. Since the license was issued, Duke Energy has invested nearly $81
million in Great Falls. And that is just to date. In the next few years there will be
millions more – all focused on Nature Based Tourism and outdoor recreation.
The agreement helped us meet many of the goals that were set during the 2000
charette but there were others for which funding had to be sought. That included
finding money for the abandoned rail corridor and other trails. Through a
partnership that the Town, GFHTA and the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) formed
with the Arras Foundation, Chester County, KVLT and others, money was obtained
for environmental studies and purchasing the 3.5-mile abandoned rail corridor.
The rail corridor was purchased in July 2021 and GFHTA, CTT and the Town
applied for a $125,000 grant from the Recreational Trails Program from S.C. Parks,
Recreation and Tourism to develop it into a trail. Great Falls has done some work
on the corridor and will do more in the next few months. Requests for bid for the
work will go out soon and work will soon begin on the section of trail that is
covered in a federal $300,000 EPA grant. In the next few months, we will send out
requests for qualifications to build a bridge over Fishing Creek to connect the
Nitrolee Access Area to the rail trail. That is being paid for with a nearly $1 million
legislative grant that Sen. Mike Fanning was able to get for us.
Another grant written by GFHTA that the Town received from CTT is funding a
study to design a connection between the existing Rocky Creek Trail and the future
rail bed trail. The plan will be completed within the next month.
The Town recently approved a proposal for a Wayfinding system that will organize
and point people, locals, and visitors, to the places we want them to go to and to
see. That too, is being paid for with the legislative grant.
Tourism is the largest industry in South Carolina.
Tourism is an estimated $29 billion industry in South Carolina,
supports one in every 10 jobs and generates $1.8 billion in state and
local taxes. -- SCPRT
Chester County has a new Parks Recreation and Tourism Director, and that
department will be unveiling a series of videos they recorded from around the
county in October. Great Falls figures prominently in those videos and they see the
great benefit to the county with the various outdoor recreation that is now and will
be available here. Those videos will be released at a Tourism Fair scheduled for
Feb. 1, 2024 from 2 to 7 p.m. at the Gateway Convention Center.
Within the past month I have had conversations with state park leaders, and they are
so excited about the prospects of a new state park in Great Falls. They have always
said that a state park in Great Falls will be a tremendous asset and economic boost
for the Town. They have also expressed interest in purchasing the No. 1 mill
property, which is basically at the entrance to the state park, to enhance the park and
make it even more attractive for visitors and locals alike.
2023 was a productive year for Great Falls. And I know that as we work towards
Nature Based Tourism and outdoor recreation within the Town, additional progress
will be made towards Great Falls being a signature destination in the southeast for
visitors from all over the world.