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Wartrace has high hopes for 2022

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 1/15/22

Balancing development with preservation requires a fine balance, but it’s a challenge many Wartrace leaders are willing to take in the upcoming years.  

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Wartrace has high hopes for 2022

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Balancing development with preservation requires a fine balance, but it’s a challenge many Wartrace leaders are willing to take in the upcoming years.  

Already, the small railroad town, located on highway 269 in southeast Bedford County, has “changed dramatically,” according to Wartrace Mayor Cindy Drake.  

When the California-native arrived in Wartrace in the early 2000s, “there was virtually nothing downtown,” she recalled. But the area’s history, natural beauty and location led Drake and her husband to stay in Wartrace for the next 20 years.  

Historical overlay  

The best way to balance this development with traditionalism is through historical overlay, according to Drake. To access grants with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for example, the city needs historical overlay plans. 

“That will provide grant money to fix the buildings that we have,” Drake said.  

“With that happening, that would bring retail in. But we want to fix the buildings that are here. We don’t want to tear them down and start over,” she said. “Because we have beautiful buildings. And most of them are in good shape on the exterior, not all of them are on the interior.”  

Drake admits Wartrace is losing historical buildings, fast. Last year, six Victorian-era buildings were torn down. “That’s a hard hit,” Drake said. “So, if we had the federal block grants through the Historical Trust, we would be able to redo those.”  

As one who “believes in being a part of the community,” Drake has been on the planning commission, the economic development committee, as well as an active member with the Chamber of Commerce in Wartrace.  

Starting about 2003, when Drake first arrived, “We worked really hard― a group of us and the Chamber―to really bring business to this area, and we did.” But when the economy dropped in 2008, it forced Drake and other community members to “start all over.”  

But now, “There’s even more than there used to be,” Drake said.  

Drake said she has been in real estate since she was 21 years old. She and her husband bought and remodeled Wartrace’s attorney building, the Iron Horse restaurant (which she co-owns), and The Sparrow’s Nest, which are some of the new businesses Wartrace hopes to continue to attract.  

Small business growth  

In addition to working with the challenges of the railroad, lack of building space has caused some businesses to seek other, larger towns.  

“Slowly, buildings have come up for sale,” Drake said. A lot of building owners use the space for storage, so one of the issues has been getting the building owners to sell, Drake said.  

Still, Drake said she is proud of the new growth downtown. “That is very important to me. I want to see that kind of growth as our community around us, outside the city limits, grows, we need to provide services. And the sales tax from that is what helps the town.”  

Population growth  

Wartrace’s population within city limits is around 650, according to the city’s website. Drake said they haven’t seen much population increase within the downtown city limits (population in the city limits was around 540, according to the 2020 U.S. Census). But they have experienced an exponential growth between the I-24 and the city limits.  

As a result, demand has grown on their water system―a system consisting of a hundred miles of pipes. The city owns Cascade Springs, which used to serve as the town’s main water source. Today, they are on Tullahoma’s water system, but the mayor says they have the goal to return to Cascade Spring’s water. “The water is phenomenal. The taste is phenomenal,” she said. It’s the water Cascade Springs Hollow Distilling Co. uses to make George Dickel ‘whisky.’  

Within a five-mile radius of Wartrace City proper, the population has grown to just over 2700 residents since, according to the city’s website. Drake said they just annexed about 30 acres for a new subdivision.  

To go back to spring water as well as meet the demand on their water system, Wartrace will have to secure a water filtration system grant, which according to Drake, could take several more mayoral terms.  

Beyond the tracks  

Meeting the demands of population growth also meant opening up, under former Wartrace mayor Thomas Hurt’s term, a new Dollar General near Wartrace’s downtown. Since the only other market, the Wartrace Country Store, was located on one side of the train tracks, they needed a market on the town-side of the railroad tracks, Drake explained.  

“The train is our challenge,” Drake said. “And as CSX does more rail service, it gets worse,” she added.  

Drake said the Dollar General was necessary, but she wishes it had followed the historical design of the town. But historical overlay plans weren’t in place yet, she said.  

Preserving identity  

Through the years, Watrace has been known for several stages in history.  

War of 1812 general and 7th President Andrew Jackson is believed to have carved “this is War Trail Creek” onto a beech tree near present day Wartrace. This is how the town got its name. By the mid 1850s, it grew to become a budding railroad town called Wartrace Depot.  

Then, as the “cradle of the Tennessee Walking Horse,” Wartrace was the home of the first National Grand Champion Strolling Jim. And nothing pairs quite as good with railroads and horses as country music. Music became part of Wartrace’s identity when Gallagher Guitars set up shop there in the 1960s to make their handcrafted instruments. Today, Wartrace hosts their music festival in the summer.  

“You don’t see the music as much as other things,” said Drake, whose husband is a country singer. “The identity today would probably be a little more musical, but we try to keep all three as part of Wartrace.” 

Up and coming  

In the works for 2022 are several projects, according to Drake.  

There’s the old Fred Russell Gymnasium renovation. “That is one of the things that is bringing up the town but yet still keeping the original charm,” Drake said. Being completely redone top to bottom, it will be home for the basketball team and the indoor location for “Movies in the Dark” as well as future vendors.  

The city park renovations will be done by spring. They are replacing benches and table and are working on a grant to redo playground. Drake said she is most looking forward to this because the park is the “hub” of the town.  

Drake said the town also received preliminary approval for a sidewalks grant.  

Increasingly, Watrace is becoming known for its festivals, like the Strawberry Festival in May and the Music Festival in June and July. Drake said they have also had success with “pop-ups,” which are no-planning-needed events that many local businesses host.  

“Our pop-ups were as big as our regular events... those have been really successful,” Drake said. According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Highway 64 north of town had nearly 1,500 cars drive through Wartrace every day in 2017.  

Such events not only attract people to the town but also work with other nearby towns. For example, overflow crowds from Bell Buckle’s fairs often stop by Wartrace. “So, we’ve tried to coordinate some of our events, so they correspond so that that traffic has something else to do,” Drake said. “The more that there is for people you do, the more people will come,” Drake added.  

“I think in general, Wartrace has attracted a lot of the millennials. And they’re excited...they’re making it their own.”  

Small town challenges  

Small towns have their charms, but they also have their challenges as well.  

“The biggest challenge I see is everybody knows everybody. So, every decision made at the table is more difficult because it’s going to affect somebody’s parent or their cousin or their best friend. I find that to be very difficult,” Drake said. “...and usually the way it affects someone is financially.”  

But on the flip side, “It’s hard to have an agenda when everybody knows everybody so well,” Drake added. “Everybody comes in and does the best job they can.”  

Drake encourages residents to come to the meetings. “It’s hard to make a decision when you don’t have input. And it’s hard when people give input after-the-fact,” Drake added.  

The next mayoral board and alderman meeting will be Jan. 24 at 5:30 p.m. at the Wartrace Town Hall, 29 Main St. East. 

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