Small Towns, Big Impact: Erwin, TN

Erwin, Tennesee’s Unaka Bike Park helps capitalize on one of the town’s best assets: its outdoor recreation options. Smart Growth America partnered with T-Mobile to support the development of the new park, helping to attract new residents and businesses while creating a new recreation space for the town’s current residents.

Launched in 2021, T-Mobile’s Hometown Grant program is investing in the power of community-driven initiatives to ensure small towns can connect, innovate, and grow together, dedicating $25 million through 2026 to support community development projects in towns nationwide. We partnered with T-Mobile to deliver technical assistance to six of these communities. To learn more, visit
A rustic sign on the edge of a tree-covered mountainside announces the entrance to Unaka Bike Park

Project background

Erwin, Tennessee is a town of about 6,000 people, approximately two hours from Knoxville, Tennessee, and on the border of North Carolina. Like many towns in Appalachia, Erwin has a historic downtown with well-connected sidewalks and a plethora of small businesses. Over the past decade, Erwin has made a conscious effort to increase the town’s connectivity, accessibility, and transportation network to create a local “micro-economy.” Erwin’s location is both one of its greatest assets as well as its greatest inhibitor to attracting new residents and businesses. In an effort to diversify their local economy and to boost the local tourism industry, Erwin has been working to capitalize on their outdoor recreation assets. Erwin has a lively mountain biking community which served as the inspiration for the city’s latest investment: Unaka Bike Park. The bike park acted as the missing piece for a community developing a portfolio of outdoor recreation options, including hiking, rafting, camping, and fishing, and is working to attract more tourists and visitors while also serving to attract and retain workforce for local industry. The project also aimed to support small businesses that struggled during COVID, specifically those that sell outdoor gear.

Goals and outcomes

The goals and expected outcomes of the bike park project started out small: to find enough funding to finish the construction of phase one and establish a proof of concept. Project leaders needed a portion of the project to be physically finished in order to engage local elected officials and decision makers to move forward with the rest of the project. A $50,000 T-Mobile Hometown Grant provided just enough to get the first phase of the bike park up and running and to allow the first users to hop on the trails. In total, Unaka Bike Park cost just over $178,000 to complete, plus approximately $50,000 for construction of the trailhead, parking lot, and signage. The Tennessee Valley Authority provided funding for materials, and Erwin Fiber, the local broadband provider, contributed as well. The bike park was built to its current state in two phases and provides cross-country and downhill trails for beginner and intermediate riders. In total, the park provides over four miles of trails on six different paths for residents and visitors to use, with up to ten miles of trails designed for future expansion. There are also plans in place to build a park to link the Appalachian Trail, Unaka Bike Park, and the Nolichucky River to create a multitude of outdoor recreation opportunities.

The Erwin, TN construction team "breaks ground" on the new mountain bike park, forging a trail through the forestChallenges

Throughout both phase one and two of the project, residents and stakeholders were encouraged to attend community meetings to discuss plans and strategies for the park. At many of these meetings, some residents vocalized concerns about bringing too many newcomers into the small community, and the impacts that higher rates of tourism would have on the local economy. For these residents, the first phase of the bike park needed to be proof that the construction of the park would not change Erwin’s local character.

Community impacts and partnerships

The bike park could not have been completed without support from the community. Collaboration with local stakeholders was a key element in every part of this project, and the project team often called on local experts to act as advisors. The active local mountain biking community was a key stakeholder in this project, along with RISE Erwin, a young professionals group, and the Town of Erwin through the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA). The Town of Erwin has served as a critical partner, securing consistent funding in the town’s annual budget to cover year-over-year maintenance costs for the park. Barry Smith Trails constructed the park, and Robert King Photography along with Creative Energy helped with marketing. The bike park’s connection to downtown Erwin was a major benefit to the local and regional community. Downtown Erwin is the heart of the community, so residents and visitors alike gather not only on the trails but also at local businesses that are near the park. The bike park is also close to residential areas and schools, allowing users who may not have access to a car to use the park, and for older residents to frequent the park in the quieter morning hours.

“I think there’s a balance of taking action and having patience to see results add up over time. There’s plenty of tangible results, but patience comes in when you start to hear positive feedback and notice the impact it’s having. You see people moving closer to downtown because of the bike park or decisions being made that are influenced by its existence.” —Joseph Wignington, President, Friends of O’Brien Watershed Board

Unaka Bike Park is much more than a tool to attract outdoor enthusiasts to Erwin. It helped rebuild community spirit in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and showed locals that opening a small town up to new experiences and people can provide a multitude of benefits. For Erwin, the development of the bike park acted as a catalyst for attracting more economic activity downtown and has inspired further plans for more recreational space.

A mountain biker speeds down the new Unaka trail

We built upon our history working with rural communities by providing technical assistance to a select group of T-Mobile’s Hometown grant recipients. Read about all six communities by clicking the links below.

Land Use and Development