Teresa Bouma and Ann Katherine Welch enjoy walking on the greenway along the Ararat River, where the path winds by big rocks beside the river and through shady, tree-lined stretches.
"You kind of don't feel like you're in Mount Airy," Welch said. "It's like a mini-vacation."
Another walker, Cathy Parker, walked 3 miles Wednesday and also enjoys the greenway, which has attracted about 200 people a day since opening last year.
"Love it," she said. "It's a good place to walk or run. It's a good place to ride a bicycle."
The city is working on getting more greenway space to enjoy, as city commissioners voted Thursday to accept a $2.2 million greenway award from the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The money would go toward an estimated cost of more than $4 million to connect the city's two greenways: the 2.2-mile Ararat River Greenway on the east side of downtown and the 2.4-mile Emily B. Taylor Greenway on the west side.
The greenways would connect at their southern ends, creating a single continuous greenway that would be 6 to 8 miles long, depending on the connector route.
Commissioners voted to accept the DOT award and also to revise a contract with Resource Institute Inc., a Winston-Salem nonprofit that will manage the project and seek grant money to pay for the rest of it. Commissioners will pay $30,000 to Resource Institute upfront, and could pay $100,000 a year for four years as the project moves along. It's expected to take about four years to finish, but the timeline depends on getting the rest of the money.
The vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Todd Harris voting no.
"We're talking about committing $430,000 over a period of time when we've set as a priority reducing taxes," he said.
Part of the project will be to continue to restore the Ararat River, as was done on the greenway portion that opened last year. The riverbanks were eroding and neglected, and the river had become full of sediment there. It's now a delayed-harvest trout stream stocked by the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission.
Michael "Squeak" Smith, chairman of Resource Institute, told commissioners that the fishing alone will generate more than $1 million a year in tourist dollars spent in the community.
"You're going to see an influx of visitors in your community, and it goes all winter long," he said. "People come and they come because of that fishery. You're going to have an influx of tourism dollars."
Martin Collins, the city's community development director, said easements are in place from the southern end of the Ararat Greenway to the Andy Griffith Parkway, but planners and engineers still have to figure out the route to connect from there to the southern end of the Emily B. Taylor Greenway.
When the connector is finished between the two greenways, a bicycle rider, walker or jogger could start at the northeast end of downtown, go in a giant U around town, and finish at the northwest end.
The greenways offer different experiences for their users.
The Emily B. Taylor Greenway, which opened in 2001, runs along Lovills Creek. This greenway goes through more open space and runs through commercial and retail areas, including beside a movie theater and places to stop and get a drink or meal.
The Ararat River Greenway is more shaded and provides a feeling of being in nature.
Welch said she and Bouma walk the Emily B. Taylor Greenway more in the winter when the sun feels good, and walk the Ararat River Greenway more in the summer when it's nice to have shade. She thinks it a great idea to connect them.
"We're real excited about it," she said.