FORT MILL — Just minutes south of Charlotte sits a park twice the size of anything in Mecklenburg County, with more visitors than the Mint Museum or McDowell Nature Preserve.
Yet most Charlotteans aren’t familiar with the 2,100-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway in Fort Mill.
That’s partly because the park’s creators, the Springs-Close family, envisioned it back in 1989 as Fort Mill’s “community backyard,” with no need for publicity.
Twenty-five years later, their greenway is an island of wilderness surrounded by a tidal wave of Charlotte sprawl.
The Springs-Close family is now convinced that major changes are needed to keep up with crowds that hit 150,000 in 2013.
A $15 million capital campaign has been launched to pay for improvements and create an endowment to cover operations for decades to come. The family kicked in the first $5 million for the campaign, and an additional $5.5 million has been raised from donors such as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl, a key figure behind many other projects in Charlotte.
“Land here is scarcer and scarcer, and I see this as an anchor on the southern end of a tremendous urban area that stretches north to the University City,” said McColl, adding that he considers the greenway a regional draw.
“This is the same as our symphony, our football team and our new uptown baseball team,” he said. “The challenge: Letting crowds enjoy it without trashing it.”
The planned improvements call for a welcome center, dog park and outdoor amphitheater for concerts and storytelling.
Part of American history
Chuck Flink, among the nation’s foremost experts on greenways, helped the family create a master plan that is shifting responsibility for the site to the community. That includes a board of managers with members from surrounding counties.
He said the greenway is unique nationally for many reasons, including the fact that it protects a mile of the old Nation Ford Road used for hundreds of years for trade, war and settlement.
It was part of the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, which stretched from Philadelphia to Augusta, Ga., and it was the first major road on the Eastern Seaboard.
“I have worked with projects in 36 states and 250 communities, and I’ve never seen anything like the scale of this landscape,” Flink said. “That’s not to say we don’t have Southern plantations that aren’t close to this in size, but this is a reflection of American history.”
That in itself is a major shift for the greenway, which was carved out of land the family’s ancestors purchased 200 years ago from the Catawba tribe.
The original settlement of what is now Fort Mill is on the greenway, along with some homesteads and a log cabin that was home to the Rev. Billy Graham’s grandfather.
Family came together
Anne Springs Close, 88, credits her eight children with preserving the land, which was part of the roughly 6,000 acres that they inherited from their grandfather.
“There came a point when it was going to be split among eight people, and we knew it was going to be our last chance to preserve it,” said Close, who visits the greenway daily.
“All eight of them got together in October 1989 and agreed to save this part, just days after Hurricane Hugo came through. We signed the paperwork by candlelight because there was no electricity. It was the only time all eight agreed on anything.”
The 2,100 preserved acres consists of the Steele Creek watershed, which curves around Fort Mill. The other 4,000 acres the eight children inherited are in various stages of development.
Close’s children, including Crandall Bowles and Elliott Close, have been helping raise the $15 million. On Friday, the family will host host 200 regional business, government and education leaders for a luncheon at the Urban Garden at Bank America in uptown. It will focus on the healing power of nature and land preservation.
Anne Springs Close said she has long worried that future generations of the family might not feel the same intimate connection to the land as she does. Her grandchildren are spread across the country, and some family members have surrendered their seats on long-standing family foundations.
To ease her fears, the family decided to give the Nation Ford Land Trust an easement on the land, protecting it in perpetuity. “It was at that point that I could finally sleep good at night,” Close said.
A regional attraction
It costs $3.5 million annually to operate the greenway. Most of the money comes from activity and admission fees. The rest is revenue generated by the Leroy Springs and Co., a nonprofit started by the family in 1938 that owns and operates the greenway and other recreation venues.
The greenway is now among the visited attractions in the region, with activities that include hiking, biking, kayaking, summer camps and community events.
“When this was a Fort Mill amenity, everybody knew about it, where to go and what programs we offered. But when people started coming from around the region, they kept looking for the front door,” said the greenway’s president, Tim Patterson.
“Things have changed so dramatically that we knew we had to look at the future and find a way to make it self-sustaining. It’s bigger than anything the family ever imagined.”