By Emily Ford
SPENCER — A broad vision for Spencer Woods proposes primitive trails through the 42-acre hardwood forest, an observation deck that doubles as an outdoor classroom, a 1.75-mile walking loop from the woods through the heart of Spencer and more.
Five landscape architects spent three days last week volunteering their expertise at the N.C. Transportation Museum, brainstorming the best way to preserve Spencer Woods while making the unique area accessible to the public.
Again and again from Spencer residents, the Community Assistance Team from the state chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects heard the refrain, “Keep it primitive.”
A series of footpaths, trails, simple footbridges and boardwalks would honor that request while allowing the public to enjoy the remarkable resource.
The town will buy the forest from the LandTrust for Central North Carolina, which rescued the acreage from clear cutting last year. Rowan Avenue and 17th Street border the woods, just a quick walk from downtown Spencer.
“The site is so pristine and such a gem,” said Lynn Raker, a Salisbury city planner and landscape architect who pulled together the design workshop. “I was pretty floored as I walked through it and saw beech trees and the running stream.
“It’s like an oasis in the middle of an urban setting.”
Her colleagues from Raleigh and Charlotte were so engrossed with the project, they worked until 10 p.m. one night, Raker said. One designer continues to email ideas to Raker.
“When you drive that section on Rowan Avenue, for a few minutes you would never know you are in the Piedmont,” said Chris Este, president and CEO of Estes Design Inc. in Charlotte. “You would think you are in the mountains. It has a lot of character.”
Bringing in outsiders to listen to residents, while viewing the property with fresh eyes, was beneficial, Este said.
“I have never been to Spencer before,” he said. “We were able to look at the site without prejudice and basically use pure logic and see it as it is.”
The results of the design workshop “are doable and practical,” Raker said. “We were very responsive to interviews with the public.”
The conceptual plan calls for:
• Construct a general access trail linking the 8th Street ballpark to Spencer Avenue, $100,000.
• Construct a general access trail linking Spencer Avenue to South Yadkin Street, $140,000.
• Provide gravel parking improvements/trail heads at the 8th Street ballpark, Spencer Avenue, Rowan Street and South Yadkin Street, $50,000.
• Provide interpretive and commemorative signs, $15,000.
• Incorporate benches, observation decks and creek crossings (primitive bridges), $25,000.
• Marketing to promote the Stanback Loop, $10,000.
• Incorporate street trees along Rowan Street as a visual cue for Spencer Woods, $15,000.
To pay for the $355,000 in improvements, the LandTrust will apply for a state grant on behalf of the town.
The town last year won a $200,000 grant from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to buy the property and likely will qualify for more money. The trust fund is known to favor projects it has previously funded.
During the workshop, the designers prepared much of the background material required for a successful grant application, Waters said. Their work cost the town nothing, he said.
Starting immediately, LandTrust volunteers will work to make the property available to the public by putting primitive trails in place and clearing trash. Andrew Waters, LandTrust operations director, said this phase should be complete by the end of the summer.
Residents will have the chance to help during publicized workdays.
One of the greatest assets identified by the designers, with help from town staff, are ghost roads, unused rights of way and vacant parcels owned by the town that can be used to connect the woods to other Spencer landmarks, Waters said.
“The design team really seized on this idea of incorporating Spencer Woods into a large walking loop connected to historic and cultural resources of the town,” Waters said.
The proposed 1.75-mile Stanback Loop, named for conservationist Fred Stanback and his family, would take people past numerous churches, the N.C. Transportation Museum and other sites, including the Stanback House at 403 S. Rowan Ave.
Now vacant, the house was an important family property when pharmacist Dr. Tom Stanback moved to Spencer in 1911 and began producing a headache relief powder known as Stanback.
Stanback sold his powders to railroad workers and repairmen, who spread the word as they traveled to other railroad towns, according to the N.C. History Project.
The designers, town officials and others spent part of a day walking the woods property and the Stanback Loop.
“It was a great experience, my favorite part,” Waters said.
Most ideas for the conceptual plan came from walking the land, he said.
This second phase — including the loop, informal parking, signs, educational markers, observation decks and boardwalks — will take two or three years to implement, depending on funding, Waters said.
A later phase of the plan, which Waters calls the “dream big” phase, focuses on the kudzu-covered ravine on Salisbury Avenue located near the Salisbury city line. The team proposes connecting Spencer and Salisbury, literally and figuratively, with a pedestrian suspension bridge over the ravine.
The ravine is the only part of Spencer Woods that doesn’t serve as an asset to the town, Raker said. The plan calls for removing the kudzu and reclaiming the forest.
This visionary phase also proposes two buildings — an office for the LandTrust and a forestry education center — on Salisbury Avenue. The education center would include public meeting space for the Board of Aldermen and other community groups.
The town and LandTrust can accomplish phase one and two without buying any property, Waters said. Phase three would require some property acquisition, but plans are preliminary, he said.
The LandTrust will set up a nonprofit board to manage Spencer Woods, similar to the management of Hurley Park in Salisbury. And while leaders are optimistic about landing a state grant to implement the plan, they need donations to come up with required matching funds, Waters said.
“It’s a significant piece of land,” Raker said. “To have it preserved is going to be such a resource for the town going forward and for many generations, a learning opportunity.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.