A long-range vision to expand the Waynesville Recreation Park and Richland Creek greenway has suddenly become a reality thanks to a $100,000 challenge contribution by local philanthropist Philan Medford.

The gift has jump started a project to build a bridge over Richland Creek. The bridge is more than bridge, however. It is a missing link for extension of the greenway and will bring a satellite tract of land into the fold of town’s recreation park.

“Bridges are euphemisms for all kinds of things in the community,” Medford said. “I saw the need, and it was something I was able to do. If I could get a bridge installed, the other greenway connection would come along.”

Town leaders jumped at the chance to buy the 9-acre tract for $80,000 in 2017. The tract was not only a vital in future greenway expansion but was a rare opportunity to add to the otherwise land-locked rec park.

There was a catch, however. The tract lay on the other side of the Richland Creek. But how hard could a bridge be?

“When the town purchased the land, I got really excited. All we needed was a bridge,” Medford said.

Little did they know what a huge hurdle the bridge would be. The bridge would have to be far wider and taller than anyone imagined to pass muster with environmental regulations. The footers have to be set well outside the floodway zone, resulting in a disproportionately large span compared to the creek itself.

And a bridge with that kind of span was going to cost a small fortune, likely more than $400,000. Coming up with that kind of money wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, so the land was destined to just sit there, visible but unreachable on the other side of the creek.

Enter Medford.

“Philan came in and said ‘Let’s get this bridge done’ and put money on the table,” said Elizabeth Teague, Waynesville’s planning director. “It is a beautiful piece of property and one of the critical links in our long-range greenway plan.”

The $100,000 contribution won’t be enough, but was the spark to get the project rolling. The town commissioned an engineering study over the summer thanks to Medford’s money to find out exactly what it would take to put in a bridge.

With that report now back, the town has launched an official fundraising campaign. Donations can be made at the town’s recreation web site at https://www.waynesvillenc.gov/departments/parks-recreation/donations.

“We would love local citizens who care about this to contribute and be a part of it,” Teague said. “Putting in this bridge and building sections of the greenway, this is part of our legacy to our children and grandchildren.’”

Medford’s legacy

The town board was enthusiastically expressed its appreciation earlier this year when Medford took the mic at a town board meeting and announced her $100,000 donation. But for those who know Medford — as everyone in town hall does given her civic activism over the years — they knew it was just like her to do something like this.

As the town and Medford talked through details of the bridge gift, it was occasionally referred to as ‘Philan’s bridge.’ But to be clear, Medford wants no part of a bridge being named after her.

“I’ll burn it down,” Medford joked, before turning serious. “We don’t do that.”

By ‘we,’ Medford was referring to her family, in particular her late parents — Phil and Mib Medford — who were long-time community benefactors. They always shied from taking credit or public recognition, however.

“You’re raised that way. You are raised to make a difference,” Medford said. “It’s our family’s value system. It’s what we do.”

Medford’s father and grandfather were well-known dentists in the county. They harnessed their affluence to give back to community causes, but the wealth was entirely self-made — the classic Appalachian bootstraps story.

Medford’s great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, was just a laborer, and illiterate at that.

“He had 13 or 14 kids, and they all went to college, some of them post-grad, even though he was illiterate,” Medford said. “He had raised them to get an education.”

Keeping the spirit of her parents alive, the Phil and Mib Medford Foundation was created after they passed away to provide a trust fund for recreation and beautification projects in Waynesville. The $100,000 donation for the bridge was gifted by Medford personally, however, outside of the foundation.

“I grew up spending every waking moment outside. The rec department was a big part of my life,” Medford said.

Medford was a champion horseback rider in her youth, and the Lion’s Club Horse Arena was her second home. The skatepark now sits at the site of the former arena.

Medford has been an influential champion for recreation, for the greenway, for Haywood Waterways, and for a pedestrian-friendly town. She was a vocal advocate of the smart growth philosophy adopted by Waynesville in the early 2000s and had pushed tirelessly for making Waynesville a walkable community, whether it was fighting for the inclusion of sidewalks in road projects or serving on the greenway commission.

Park complex

Aside from the greenway, the bridge will also benefit the larger recreation picture.

“This bridge is going to be literally the link to the new property, which will open the door for a lot more recreation possibilities, so it will be extremely vital,” said Rhett Langston, Waynesville Recreation Director.

Waynesville’s recreation complex has seen increasing use, in part due to a rising population.

“There are more and more people on the greenways, playing disc golf, skateboarding, walking dogs. It is a fantastic thing and we are delighted about it, but it does create some challenges,” Langston said.

Eventually, the recreation complex would reach a saturation point unless the footprint can grow.

The bridge will open a world of options by connecting with the 9-acre tract across the creek. As for what to do it, Langston said a public visioning process would be held to gather ideas and feedback.

One trend is the demand for open space for so-called “self-directed” or “passive” recreation, Langston said.

“Somewhere to go fly a kite or throw a frisbee,” Langston said.

But for Medford, the driving factor in her gift was the greenway.

“The greenway has been important to me for a very long time,” Medford said. “Greenways are a wonderful thing. We are talking about a healthy community, a place where people can go to that is essentially free. You don’t have to pay an entrance fee to get on it. It is for the community.”

The town has been chipping away at missing greenway sections over the years, but without Medford’s gift to get the ball rolling, it’s unclear how long it would have taken to take the next step in the long-held dream to link downtown Waynesville with Lake Junaluska along a greenway.

“It’s a huge leap forward,” Teague said.

Time is something Medford doesn’t necessarily have. Medford has been battling MS for years, and the disease has been slowly claiming her mobility. She’s determined to walk across that bridge one day, however.

While there’s still a long row to hoe to raise the rest of the money for the bridge, Medford has already been thinking ahead to the ribbon cutting. She may need a golf cart to take her along the greenway to its terminus at the bridge, but she wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I’m going to dance on the bridge,” Medford said. “But if you blink, you’ll miss it. Maximum three seconds, then I’ll sit back down.”

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