September Happy Hour with Special Guest John Kvach, Executive Director of the Singing River Trail

John Kvach, Executive Director of the Singing River Trail, will be speaking to the Huntsville New Liberals at our monthly happy hour on September 28th from 6-8 pm. Location TBD. RSVP now!

This talk fits perfectly with the New Liberals’ focus on breaking free from car-dependence by making getting around on foot and via bicycle safer and easier. It also neatly aligns with our search for opportunities for smart, green economic growth.

Dr. John Kvach was a professor of Southern history for 22 years. He holds two Masters degrees as well as a PhD in History from The University of Tennessee. He also worked for the Parks Service and, like me, lived for a time in the D.C. area. 

Kvach took over as Executive Director of the Singing River Trail in 2020.

Read on to learn how the Singing River Trail will promote public health, economic growth, and civic pride and what you can do, besides coming to the happy hour, to help realize the vision. Do your homework, and then come with your questions for John!

Singing River Trail: Vision

High level, the Singing River Trail is a human highway that pedestrians, hikers, and bikers can travel without being accosted by traffic. The contiguous trail will run roughly parallel with the Tennessee River for 220+ miles. It starts at the Shoals and ends in Bridgeport near Chattanooga. In total it will connect eight counties and 27 towns across North Alabama.

The whole trail will be accessible and ADA-compliant. In the cities, trails will be paved. Trails in rural areas will use an attractive and less-expensive fine stone dust that supports wheelchairs, walkers, and thin-tired bikes. “I don’t want people to think you’re walking on marbles,” Kvach said. Individual trail sections will vary in width from 10 to 14-feet. 

“It’s a trail, but it’s really about empowering a quarter of Alabama’s total population,” Kvatch said

The benefits are manifold. 

The trail’s total economic impact is estimated at $26 million.

First, protected, accessible, free trails make it safer and easier for more Northern Alabamians to get outside and move. Studies show that both being in nature and exercise improve physical and mental well-being. Plus – long, connected, protected lanes make it safer and easier for more people to commute by bike, which improves public health and saves families money while improving air quality and protecting the environment. Overall, once complete, the trail is estimated to offer $1.4 million in health benefits and $866,000 in transportation benefits.

But that’s just the start.

Kvach also expects 100 new permanent jobs connected to the trail.

“A trail system like this is a big business draw,” Kvatch said. “It provides a quality of life that will attract business to North Alabama and keep them here.” Expect to see new retail, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, bike shops, and other employers. I’m personally very excited about North Alabama benefitting from green, accessible, small-business focused economic growth and innovation. Every year, the SRT hosts a pitch competition for new ideas that need investment. Call 256.731.9055 or email john@singingrivertrail.com to learn more.

Plus, a greenway can increase nearby property values by 5% to 7%, according to Kvach. 

There’s something striking about how Kvatch’s historical dissertation rhymes with his current work. Up, Up Ye Men of Capital: J. D. B. De Bow and the Antebellum Origins of the New South busts the myth that the men who ran the antebellum South uniformly opposed progress. In fact, Kvach finds examples of influential southern men promoting economic development, modernization, and diversification while championing urbanization and attempts at increasing the South’s cultural sophistication. 

From historical writing and research to incorporating natural features and historic landmarks into the Singing River Trail, Kvach is all about fostering pride of place. 

“For me as an Alabamian, I say I want my kids to want to come back here someday,” Kvach said. “The thing we offer the next generation isn’t so much golf courses or tennis courts; it’s more about greenways and opportunities to go outside and engage our natural environment, and at the same time say, ‘Hey, I want to start a business. I want to have a bike rental business,’ and actually be able to pursue that dream.”

Singing River Trail: Progress

So far, the team has completed about 15 miles of the trail, including a mile-and-a-half of completed trails in South Huntsville and West Huntsville. You’ll also find completed trail sections in Scottsboro and Madison. 

The plan includes assuming existing trail routes in Decatur, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Florence, and Athens. There, Swan Creek Greenway and Swan Creek trailhead will become part of the trail. Kvach estimates they’ll have 80% of the trail built within the next 15 years. 

“It’s not about duplicating what’s already there,” Kvach said. “If there are existing trails that we can connect to, we’re going to do it. By the end of this year, we’ll have around 15 miles of trail built and another 30 or 40 miles that will be signed and added on within the next year to three years.”

Kvach said fundraising has gone pretty quickly and easily thus far. Their first sponsor, Google, wants workers at their service center in Bridgeport to enjoy a high quality of life and good health and stay with the company for a long time. The project also received a $50,000 grant through Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville to build an area with outdoor exercise equipment. They also plan to build one in Scottsboro. Kvach said that in the first two years of asking for money, they only got four significant rejections. 

“Some of our bigger private partners including Google, Toyota, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Regions are partners with us because they realize how good it is for attracting a workforce and keeping them here,” Kvatch said.

Singing River Trail: History

The name “Singing River Trail” honors a young Yuchi Indian girl, Te-lah-nay, who lived with her tribe along the “Singing River,” named after the woman who lived in the river and sang to them. 

According to legend, US government officials abducted her during the Trail of Tears and sent her to Oklahoma. Missing the singing river, she spent years making her way back home. “Our name is an homage to that story and that moment in time,” Kvach said. 

Artist Paula Nelson, an Eastern Band Cherokee citizen, incorporated Native American concepts of water, land, and air into the SRT logo. 

The Singing River Trail is a Native American Heritage Trail project which follows the Trail of Tears.

“The Trail of Tears was a horrific part of our national history and story, but we don’t want that to completely define the Native American story in Alabama,” Kvach said. “We also want to highlight the heritage – How these people lived, traveled, played. We want to be more about the encompassing story that engages our Native American past, but also connects it to our future in the sense of the human story. Then we can begin to focus on the next story we want to tell. It can be the story of African Americans, the story of immigrants. Then we begin to answer: How did we get here? What made us us? What’s in our DNA? For a lot of Alabamians, there’s this mixed DNA that’s really compelling.”

“If you want to build a wall, build a wall,” Kvach said. “I’m building bridges.” 

Joe Campbell began the Singing River Trail project in 2014 to connect the Decatur and Huntsville Calhoun Community College campuses. Then, representatives from federal, state, county, municipal and private agencies developed the Singing River Trail Master Plan between March 2018 and July 2019, operating as Launch 2035. In 2020, Launch 2035’s Land Use Committee hired Kvach.

Singing River Trail: Needs

The Huntsville New Liberals are not just a social club! We are here to help. To speed up progress on the trail, Kvach needs donations, rights of way, easements, and public and private land.

You can also donate to the Singing River Trail Park in Mooresville. 

“We’re a nonprofit working with towns applying for state and federal funding,” Kvach said. “So the faster people in Montgomery and Washington recognize we’re working hard to build infrastructure in the state as a nonprofit, the faster we’re funded, and the faster we’ll finish.”

Go here to email to Rep. Dale Strong (AL-07).

Sample wording:

“As a Huntsville resident and voter, I’m very excited to see the Singing River Trail’s progress. Please keep helping to ensure Congress sets aside adequate funds for North Alabama infrastructure investments and that the Singing River Trail receives every bit of funding for which it qualifies.” 

To learn more about Kvach and the Singing River Trail, check out these links:

Singing River Trail Master Plan
SRT for cyclists
Rocket City Cast: EP 23 | John Kvach
Plans for state-of-the-art walking and biking trail to begin in Scottsboro
6 questions with John Kvach of North Alabama’s Singing River Trail

To learn more about the trail and get even more involved in bringing it to life, RSVP to the September happy hour today!