John Shearer: Attending Celebration Of Stringer’s Ridge Preserve’s 10th Anniversary

  • Saturday, September 30, 2023
  • John Shearer

In what has been an unusually good stretch for nature lovers, the Chattanooga area has seemingly had as much news in the last week or so related to park preservation as to zoning requests for new construction on currently unspoiled pastureland or woodland.

Some plans to greatly re-landscape Montague Park near 23rd Street and make it into a premier Southern park were announced Wednesday, and this Saturday the Waldens Ridge Park off Mountain Creek Road is scheduled to be opened and dedicated.

But last Saturday, Sept. 23, I decided to drop by the Stringer’s Ridge Preserve’s parking area off Spears Avenue shortly after noon for a celebration related to a park that had earlier set an admirable standard for preservation and more passive recreation. In connection with National Public Lands Day, the 10th anniversary of the Stringer’s Ridge Preserve was celebrated.

And it was quite a day to celebrate, as the park is a unique place to visit very close to downtown, but it gives the wooded hiking experience and offers the elevated views that one might get from the area mountains farther away.

I discovered Stringer’s Ridge Preserve after moving back to Chattanooga from Knoxville in 2017, with the first place the nice little elevated and slightly open area a short distance up from and behind the now-razed Nikki’s off Cherokee Boulevard. Called the Overlook, it gives a good view of downtown, the Tennessee River, the area hills, and, yes, even the recently widened freeway toward Olgiati Bridge.

After some mudslide issues hit that area, I later found the area behind Spears Avenue, where the Saturday event was held. Despite having to climb a little in elevation in a way that might keep a few couch potatoes or older residents away, I did find that it offers a simply stunning view over toward Signal Mountain at the top, particularly in the wintertime when I like to visit. There are also ferns and other greenery to enjoy year-round.

And in the last couple of years, I have enjoyed the new stretch connecting with White Oak Park on the north end a mile or so away through a large lowland or powerline area between residential development up steep slopes on both sides.

I have always walked or jogged through all these stretches, but I know the whole area is also popular for non-motorized mountain bikers.

Anyway, I figured it would be fun to get more of the fuller story of this park’s history by attending the Saturday program, and so I did. What I did not realize was that it also turned into a pep rally of what organizers believe the Chattanooga area can achieve along with what it has already accomplished in terms of becoming the so-called Outdoor City.

I arrived there a few minutes before the program was to begin and saw Scott Martin, the administrator of the Chattanooga Parks and Outdoors Department. After we shared some brief hellos, I asked him some of the backstory of the park, since much of it occurred when I was in Knoxville, and he quickly introduced me to Jim Johnson.

Mr. Johnson, I soon learned, has been sort of an unsung person at least in the Chattanooga media, but he has been quite visible among preservation groups with efforts to protect areas in Chattanooga or develop more greenways.

He said the land was being bought up for development by various parcels about 17 years ago for a potential high-density development, and a few Chattanoogans, including Mr. Johnson, who was active with the Chattanooga Bicycle Club, took notice.

“A lot of people were thinking that we don’t want another Cameron Hill” (which was shaved at the top 60 years ago), said Mr. Johnson. “Along with the Walnut Street Bridge, it is one of the best vistas you have, and you have the wonderful woods.”

He said several people then went to the Trust for Public Land and said that this ridgetop location almost completely surrounded by development needed to be saved.

The developer, apparently Chattanoogan Jimmy Hudson, was understanding despite his development dreams, and said he would sell it to them for about half the $5 million he had spent accumulating the parcels.

“They raised the money,” Mr. Johnson said with excitement, almost sounding like a fan recounting a victorious big game.

However, as Mr. Johnson continued, “Before the city took over the park, it needed to be a turn-key park, and that involved another set of money, and they spent two years building the trails.”

As he told the gathering later in the formal program, some homemade trails that went straight up and eroded easily were replaced with the current winding ones with consultation from Trail Dynamics. The hired group not only made recommendations, but also listened to others through community meetings and other events, Mr. Johnson and others said.

Mr. Johnson, a transplanted New Englander, stayed involved throughout the process, helping raise additional money and volunteering his time with many others getting the trails in shape to be used and cleaning up trash, including homeless camps.

And as he stood there Saturday, the look on his face obviously showed that it was worth it. And as he said with words complementing his smile, “It has become a popular place.”

He later added that one of his favorite things is going out to the Overlook. “What I really like is standing on the Overlook, especially when people come there for the first time and have a sense of wonder in their voices, because it might be the best one or two views in Chattanooga they can get.”

Similar comments of victory were echoed during the program. Noel Durant of the Trust for Public Land said the land as a preserved park has been a testament to local partnerships and good visioning.

“In 2007, there was a headline that said Stringer’s Ridge was planned for development for 400 condominiums and the top 40 feet would be chopped off, but this community rallied, and so often in an opportunity like this, a community can make a choice,” he said.

Mr. Durant added that now the park is considered a special and unique asset. “We have a 100-acre urban forest within a mile of the Tennessee River,” he said. “So many communities are envious of this kind of access, and it has become a hallmark of Chattanooga. The Trust for Public Land is so grateful to be a part of this story of this community-driven success.”

Mayor Tim Kelly, who drove himself to the event, called the 10-year celebration a great day to be in Chattanooga. “This park is really a testament to a lot of things that make Chattanooga special,” he said. “Obviously there is the landscape but also the spirit of public and private partnerships.

“There could have been 500 condos on this ridge had it not been for the donors, Jimmy Hudson and some of the other guys, and (state) Rep. (Greg) Vital, who actually owned this parking lot and said there’s a better use for this.”

Mayor Hollie Berry of Red Bank, which became connected to the park after its initial opening due to the connecting stretch from White Oak Park, called the space an incredible, beautiful gem of an urban park. “Red Bank is proud to be the co-steward of this Stringer’s Ridge Preserve now and in the future,” she said.

Mr. Martin from Chattanooga Parks and Outdoors also tried to emphasize how unique and special the Stringer’s Ridge Preserve is, adding, “I saw some kids just down the street, and this (park) is what is normal to them, and it didn’t have to be that way, and that’s a special, special thing to be.”

He encouraged Chattanooga to keep saving park spaces. “I hope in 10 years we’re celebrating the 10thanniversary of the next move for conservation,” he said.

Eliot Berz of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust, which was also involved with the preservation of the park, also spoke on the reoccurring themes Saturday of the uniqueness of the park and the teamwork that helped it come to fruition and thrive today.

“It really is extraordinary that there’s a 92-acre chunk of protected forest amidst a rapidly growing area,” he said. “You don’t see that often and it happened through a lot of non-profit organizations and citizens and local governments bonding together to make it happen, which demonstrates our community’s values.”

Also taking part in the program were officials with the local Southern Offroad Bicycle Association group, which has helped build a growing number of biking trails at Stringer Ridge and elsewhere, and the sponsoring White Oak Bicycle Co-op.

Overall, it was a day to celebrate not only the enjoyment from such a scenic spot as the Stringer’s Ridge Preserve over the last 10 years, but life itself.

As Mr. Johnson closed his formal remarks during the program, he told the story of learning of one woman who had battled cancer and came and laid a stick at a spot on a pile at Stringer’s Ridge Preserve for each week she survived the disease. And the last time he knew, her pile had become quite high.

“If there’s one common denominator of why people come here, it’s wanting to be outdoors in nature nurturing their mind, body and spirit, or in some cases, simply to celebrate being alive,” he said.

And the park itself was definitely alive last Saturday with several dozen people – and at least one cute dachshund puppy – enjoying the scenic early fall setting.

* * *

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