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Tannery Knobs: To open or not to open?

W. Kenneth Medley II • Mar 30, 2019 at 9:59 PM

A group of late 20s to early 30s mountain bikers stand around talking in hushed whispers, and the only thing audible over and over is …Tannery Knobs.

There is excitement in the whispers. There is also a sense of hopelessness. For any mountain biker in the region and one may say, across the country, Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park is becoming a myth that never happened. The trails are built, marketing products disseminated, but opening date promises have come and gone.

The gates remain locked, and now no one will even give an estimate to the opening date. For the time being the property remains in the possession of Grant Summers, president of Summers-Taylor Inc. He has funded the project, and Mayor Jenny Brock says the city has not provided a penny to date for Tannery Knobs.

“We do not have anything scheduled,” Brock said in reference to opening the park. “We are eagerly awaiting the opening. The city is excited about this project and we are just waiting for the property closing, which means the owner, is to complete all the closing documentation and final surveys of the property.

“We will need all the documentation to reimburse Summers for the building. Our Parks and Recreation Department is planning and working on all the things they will do once it is in the city’s possession.”

The mayor described the process as like buying a house. She said the city has to have the property inspected and to ensure the city is getting an industry-standard facility. Brock also said that this is not something to worry about.

IMBA Trail Solutions built the trail system on Tannery Knobs. The company is the construction arm of the International Mountain Biking Association. They specialize in building sustainable trails for multiple age groups dedicated for mountain biking, and are also the parent organizations of the local advocacy group, Southern Off-Road Biking Association: Tri-Cities.

“IMBA is the standard for building trails,” said Brock. “I think that we have gone with the people who know this business best. We are pleased with the quality. Let me put it like this. … Just bringing a contractor in to do it wouldn’t get you what you need in a real safe design of the trail system. IMBA does do that, and that is what we went after.”

IMBA Trail Solutions build trails all around the globe, and sent some of their best designers and builders to Johnson City to oversee construction of Tannery Knobs. Joshua Collins is one such builder that came and has since relocated to Johnson City. During an interview on a volunteer workday, Collins said that Johnson City is unique in that one can ride to world-class trails from downtown.

David Wiens, executive director of IMBA, is a mountain biker with a storied past that includes national championships and international racing. He recently visited Johnson City to tour Tannery Knobs and other recreational offerings with city officials. Wiens said that he had not heard of Johnson City specifically until Tannery Knobs was on IMBA’s radar.

“I certainly had heard a lot about riding in the Pisgah National Forest,” said Wiens, “and I had heard a lot about Asheville (North Carolina). Being familiar with collegiate mountain bike racing, I had heard about a lot of the college and universities in the area.

“I was certainly familiar with the area, but I wasn’t familiar specifically with Johnson City and Tannery Knobs until I started at IMBA. Then very quickly it was one of our major products, and one of our best examples of how mountain biking and trails can transform a community.”

Tannery Knobs Mountain Bike Park will feature trails for all ages. Beginners can ride the green loop around the top of the knob and enjoy beautiful views of Johnson City, Cardinal Stadium and Buffalo Mountain. More advanced riders can ride the more challenging blue trail that incorporates some rock sections, double jumps or rollers and other technical aspects.

The most advanced riders can ride the two black trails. These are for skilled riders and one features a roll in through a steep rock garden. This immediately leads into a series of drops and jumps. Speed quickly builds before moving into the flow section featuring some jumps and switchback berm turns.

“What I really like about it up there is that you have the asphalt pump-track at the top and a pretty acceptable parking area,” said Wiens, “and you have a full-spectrum of trails.

“As far as how valuable that is to a community, your local high-school teams can train there and everybody from the very best riders to brand new riders have trails that are perfect for their skills. The riders can work on their skills progression. This goes for adults too.”

Tannery Knobs will feature a paved pump-track at the top of the knob. This is adjacent to the parking area. For now, Phase III hardstand restroom facilities and a pavilion are on hold, according to Brock. She said there will be portable restrooms like that at the Tweetsie Trail, but for now priority is the transition to the city taking ownership rather than bathrooms.

Wiens says that simply having an accessible place to ride like Tannery Knobs is something that will be unique to Johnson City. The park is right off Interstate 26 and just outside of downtown. Also, Johnson City is within driving distance to high-quality backcountry riding in Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests.

“You guys are blessed to be surrounded by backcountry riding on all sides, amazing backcountry riding in national forest. Those are not always the accessible rides during the week. Having Tannery Knobs there, that really becomes your staple go to trails for your fitness.

“A lot of people ride because it is a great release from their lives. If they have a stressful job or whatever is going on in their lives, mountain biking has a way of sort of refreshing and resetting your mind. Being able to do that on a daily basis and have the easy access you have a Tannery Knobs is really important.

“There are plenty of people that have the harder-to-get-to backcountry riding available to them, but it is just not practical to most people to ride that consistently. It is more something that they do on the weekends or when they have more time. Having a place like Tannery Knobs that is very accessible and really has everything that you need. It’s a jewel.

“You guys are very lucky to have that, not every community has that. When we want to show a community what the potential is with a trail system that will move the needle for them, and change the fabric of their community, Tannery Knobs is a perfect example.”

The sentiment of transforming community is not lost on the local leadership. The Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership has an Outdoor Task Force and Outdoor Development Manager.

The city started expanding mountain bike offerings with the addition of a mountain bike/multi-use trail system at Winged Deer Park.

Brock referenced Winged Deer Park as evidence to the city’s commitment to mountain biking. She said that SORBA Tri-Cities has done an outstanding job expanding the trail system there. The newer trail called “Roll The Bones” is heavily oriented to riders and runners.

One can see evidence of a knowledge exchange between local builders and the IMBA Trail Solution builders during volunteer workdays at Tannery Knobs.

“We have a feasibility study that will be completed at Buffalo Mountain Park,” Brock said, about the possibility of biking trails on Buffalo Mountain. “I think the opportunity for us as a city and a region to be an attractive place for mountain bikers to come and have an experience here is great.

“For me personally, I want to see our young children from the get go, call it ‘let’s get kids on a bike and be active,’ and to get them really pumped up about a sport that we all can do.”

The park will be opening, the mayor says, but there is no date as of yet. There has been trespassing happening at Tannery Knobs. Officials want to remind people that this park is still private property. There are also not emergency services available to the park. If one is injured, the potential for further injury is greater because of this.

SORBA will also be having its annual summit in Johnson City this year. The event is to be held in May. Brock feels that Tannery Knobs was 100 percent integral to SORBA choosing Johnson City for the event.

“I do not think they would have come here if TK had not been a factor,” said Brock, “which that is just my opinion. I did go to the IMBA Trail Lab conference in Bentonville, Arkansas, last year.

“When we walked into the room there were people from all over the country and the host said, ‘here come the folks from Johnson City,’ almost simultaneously everybody spoke up and said, ‘Tannery Knobs!’ We were like the heroes in the room and I am thinking, ‘WHAT?!’ It has been heard about.”

Multiple attempts were made to reach Grant Summers for comment. At the time of publication, he or his office had not returned communications. Make sure to follow the Johnson City Press for updates to Tannery Knobs.

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