By RHI Legacy Foundation
Rutherfordton - Rutherford County Manager Steve Garrison has hosted two virtual meetings each week since the COVID-19 health crisis began. The call has included staff from the county's Emergency Operations Center and representatives from health and human services, public safety and emergency services, education, philanthropy and faith-based organizations, town management, utility providers, business and tourism entities, and local, state and United States elected officials. The call has provided an effective avenue to address the impacts and responses to the pandemic and identify gaps in services to our local citizens.
In one of the early Operations Center calls, Jerry Stensland, representing the Rutherford Outdoor Coalition, Isothermal Planning and Development Commission, and the Active Living Committee of the Health Council of Rutherford County, reported a major increase in the traffic on the Thermal Belt Rail Trail (TBRT). A combination of uncharacteristically good weather, school changes, and residents faced with job interruptions prompted many to enjoy the TBRT for the first time and regular users to increase their time on the Trail. During the week of April 27, visits numbered almost 3,500, with as many as 650 using the trail in one day for walking, running, and bicycling.
A grant provided by the RHI Legacy Foundation funded the purchase of bicycles to help bolster security on the Thermal Belt Rail Trail.
Immediately after that call, Sheriff Chris Francis called on deputy Leon Godlock, the Lieutenant of Support Services for the Sherriff's Office, to develop a plan to patrol the TBRT to ensure the safety and positive experiences for those enjoying the Trail.
Godlock reached out to RHI Legacy Foundation to apply for funding for COVID-19 related projects and programs. Beth Miller, chairwoman of the RHI Legacy Foundation board, said, "The RHI Legacy Board was pleased to unanimously approve the funding of a grant to the Rutherford County Sheriff's Office for the purchase of bicycles to be utilized by officers to patrol the Thermal Belt Rail Trail. We are excited to see more and more citizens of all ages enjoying physical activity together on the Trail and we are always appreciative of the efforts of community partners, such as the Sheriff's Office, to improve that experience for everyone."
The complete request included two patrol bicycles, helmets, safety equipment, and bike racks for transport.
Resource officers from area schools will be the primary users of the bicycles during the summer. They patrol the Trail in the areas that are not overseen by town governments, so their routine territory will be from Ruth to Gilkey. As county officers, however, they can travel the entire route and provide services as needed. Their mission is to make county residents and visitors from outside the area fell safe and to remind users about proper etiquette and safe distancing when using the Trail. They will also monitor trail head parking areas to prevent vandalism of vehicles and Trail property. In the future, they will add first aid and bike repair supplies to their inventory.
Godlock placed the two bicycles into use immediately when they received them. The patrols have received much public appreciation during their time on the Trail. Families have made photos and videos of the officers and they get frequent waves and 'thumbs ups' when they greet others using the Trail. They have been able to assist with flat tires and helping answer questions about the area. So far, the problems and concerns that they have observed include littering, groups who take up the entire width of the Trail and interfere with bicycle traffic, and cyclers who fail to let walkers know they are approaching from behind. They remind users that all traffic should be on the right, with passing occurring on the left and that litter should be placed in trailhead trash receptacles or carried home. Their goal is to educate, and when appropriate, to issue warnings that allow people time to correct violations of Trail rules.
Godlock has joined the Community Health Council of Rutherford County's active living committee. Theis group helps tie together the efforts of the Support Services division of the Sheriff's Office, Safe Kids, Rutherford Outdoor Coalition, Watch for Me NC, and the NC Safe Routes to School program, all which have programs available in Rutherford County.
"The goal of the Active Living Committee is to decrease the county's level of chronic disease by increasing the rate of physical activity among county residents. Safe use and free access to local trail systems is a priority of RHI Legacy Foundation and the Community Health Council of Rutherford County. These two organizations work in tandem to offer opportunities to impact the health of our residents", said Jill Miracle, who serves both organizations.