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Take a walk on artsy, wild side of greenway

Dozens of artists’ booths will sprout this weekend along a scenic waterway as Little Sugar Creek Greenway shows off for the first time since the last urban section was opened last week.

A decade ago, the stretch was an industrial ditch holding the most polluted stream in Mecklenburg County. It was a fetid stew of runoff and industrial waste trickling beneath parking decks and buildings on the fringe of uptown.

Now, fish have returned to the creek and, increasingly, people are being drawn to its banks.

On Thursday, a flotilla of geese cruised beside the Metropolitan development while a chittering colony of small birds nesting in the beams of the Charlottetowne Avenue overpass practiced airborne acrobatics in the shade of the span. Lunchtime joggers ran along the paved greenway, which stretches about five unbroken miles from Central Piedmont Community College to Park Road Shopping Center.

“I’ve had my eye on that thing for 10 years, waiting for it to complete,” says David Dalton, chairman of the Festival in the Park board of directors, which is organizing this weekend’s Kings Drive Art Walk. “Basically, the venue was created for an event like this. Everything is so accessible there.”

More than 60 artists will set up booths, double the number from last year’s inaugural event, between East Morehead Street and the Pearle Street bridge on Saturday.

Dalton says Little Sugar Creek, which he remembers from his childhood as a dank, dangerous zone, is a natural location for outdoor gatherings with its wide path, fountains, benches, plazas and proximity to parking and restaurants.

Decades of attention

Transforming Little Sugar Creek is a project decades in the making. In 1966, a master plan for parks recommended that urban greenways be developed. Two years later, Charlotte City Council member Jerry Tuttle proposed an urban waterfront on the creek modeled on San Antonio’s River Walk.

But there was no money and it languished until a series of floods in the mid-‘90s caused millions of dollars in damage along the creek bed. In 1999, voters approved county land bonds to buy commercial property along the Midtown section of the creek and a movement got under way to revitalize the area.

In 2004, voters approved more park bonds to be spent on the greenway and in 2007, work began on the uptown stretch. Wetlands were restored and four water gardens were developed to reduce pollution in the creek.

In all, about $43 million was spent on the urban portion from Seventh Street to Morehead Street, including land acquisition. It was paid from bond money, property taxes, private sources, grants and stormwater fees.

From eyesore to nature

Gwen Cook, greenway planner for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, has lived in the Little Sugar Creek area since 1987.

“I watched the project go in. It’s been exciting to me, especially to see the life come back to the creek. There was everything over the creek – Taco Bell, Exxon, McDonald’s. It’s so wonderful now compared to what it was.”

It’s not done yet. Eventually, planners hope to take the greenway to the South Carolina state line.

In the urban stretch, a campaign championed by CPCC president Tony Zeiss and others is raising money and commissioning statues of key people in Mecklenburg’s past as the “Trail of History.” Captain Jack, who carried the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, is already in place atop his horse and 20 other statues have been proposed.

New this month to the greenway is a 7-foot-diameter music-box sphere by Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen at Midtown Park at South Kings Drive and Baxter Street. It is a public art project among those administered by the Arts & Sciences Council.

Cook said at least one wedding has been drawn to a plaza along the creek and the county gets requests for other events to be held along the greenway.

“It’s great to see people out here enjoying it – I’ll see somebody biking and another roller-blading,” said Cook. “That’s just the epitome of what a greenway is supposed to be.”

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