Bill Ellenbogen is a developer and a self-avowed capitalist—and he’s had his hands in numerous brick-and-mortar business projects.
But what’s earned him admiration from many in the area is the Huckleberry – a beloved recreational amenity and a regional draw that now stretches from Christiansburg to the Jefferson National Forest north of Blacksburg.
“What I’ve tried to do is … give something back to the community. I really love Blacksburg,” Ellenbogen, 70, said. “I think it’s important as a capitalist, which I am, and as an entrepreneur, that I try to find a middle road. Where at the same time I was building a business, I was also returning something to the community.”
Ellenbogen recently retired after decades as the leader of the Friends of the Huckleberry, the advocacy and fundraising organization for the trail.
In 2019, a long-awaited goal was finally fulfilled when a half-mile section of the trail between Glade and Prices Fork roads was completed. While it was a small addition, the section effectively created a connection between Christiansburg and the gateway of the Jefferson National Forest, where more recreational amenities are in the midst of being added.
Beth Lohman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Huckleberry Trail, calls the path the backbone to nearly 54 miles of other paved and natural trails.
Other local figures consider the trail a linear park that has significantly enhanced the region.
“When people name their things about Blacksburg, it’s usually a long list, but that’s always on it,” said Blacksburg Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith.
While several parties have contributed to the growth of the Huckleberry, Hager-Smith said it was Ellenbogen’s devotion and perseverance through the years that kept the project together.
“I think of him, in capital letters, as the FRIEND of the Huckleberry,” Hager-Smith said.
Hager-Smith later said: “We are really fortunate that he has been so generous with his time and energy.”
Ellenbogen handed the reins of the Friends of the Huckleberry Trail to Lohman this past fall.
Ellenbogen has said that he’ll remain involved with the organization in some capacity, particularly in another effort to try to take the trail directly over Prices Fork via a pedestrian bridge.
From one-mile strip to recreational backbone
The Huckleberry was originally the nickname—later officialized—for the old Blacksburg depot that was approximately located at the site of the current town library.
The nickname was given because when the train would stall, passengers could step off and pass time picking huckleberries growing alongside the tracks.
In 1966, the year the station closed, J.C. Garrett of Virginia Tech’s horticulture department worked with others to turn a part of the old railroad bed into a one-mile walking path that went from the Blacksburg library to Airport Road. The short path would provide the Huckleberry’s beginning.
The step that ultimately led to the more than 14-mile-long system began in the 1980s when Ellenbogen said Blacksburg was updating its master plan and wanted to address recreational improvements.
Ellenbogen said former town Mayor Roger Hedgepeth asked him if he would get involved.
“He felt that possibly I could bridge some of the political turmoil that was going on at the time,” Ellenbogen said.
A committee was formed in 1991 and evolved into a nonprofit, the Friends of the Huckleberry Inc.
Ellenbogen said one of the group’s key roles, to raise funds, is important when it comes to moving such projects forward.
“One of the things I had long believed is when you go to the government and just ask for money, you’re more likely to get rebuffed than if you go with some money,” he said. “That was sort of the way I approached it.”
The first major milestone of Ellenbogen’s involvement with the project occurred several years after the founding of the nonprofit when the Huckleberry was extended to about 6 miles, running from its original starting point near the Blacksburg library all the way to the area of the mall—now called Uptown Christiansburg—and Corning in Christiansburg.
Completion of the first extension wasn’t considered quick due to a number of bureaucratic and environmental hurdles.
Finding money often takes time, but another complicated step is the granting of right of ways, Ellenbogen said.
“They both present challenges, but right of way is the harder of it right now,” he said.
Many property owners aren’t necessarily against recreational projects aimed at boosting the quality of life, Ellenbogen said. But whether they want to let the general public freely cross their lands for years to come is something to really think about, he said.
Then, all property owners on the path of a trail need to get onboard.
“It only takes one private property owner to stop you,” he said.
One particular challenge Ellenbogen said he had to overcome was convincing the property owners in the mall and Corning area to donate easements and dispelling fears about the use of eminent domain.
He said the tact he used: Using the word “please.”
Then there were those who doubted whether the trail was needed and worth the trouble.
Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber said he was among those who early wasn’t quite supportive of trail’s extension to the town. He said he didn’t develop natural enthusiasm at first for the project because he simply wasn’t an avid biker, hiker or jogger.
“I didn’t think it would be that well received, but it didn’t take long to see it’s been the right move for us,” he said.
Barber said he’s seen the frequent and diverse usage of the trail, which even includes people who get on the Huckleberry to ride their bikes to work in Blacksburg. The mayor is now among those pushing to eventually see the Huckleberry reach downtown Christiansburg and also link up with another future trail that would run to the southern end of town.
Numerous organizations and entities, including the Blacksburg and Christiansburg town governments, have contributed to the Huckleberry. Ellenbogen said his main contribution was bringing them together and getting them to see the long-term picture.
“I have always called myself a catalyst,” he said. “You put a catalyst in for a chemical reaction and suddenly things start to happen. By being a little pushy, being committed and getting people together, as much as anything. And everybody wanted it to happen. They just needed prodding. They needed money and grants. That’s why it took so long.”
More than $5 million for the trail’s expansion has been raised through a combination of federal, state and government funds and donations from corporations and private citizens, according to the Friends of the Huckleberry Trail.
Since that first extension in the 1990s, the Huckleberry now connects to the base of the Jefferson National Forest. In Christiansburg, the path goes over Peppers Ferry Road via a pedestrian bridge and continues just past the town’s recreation center.
“Any project that crosses multiple jurisdictions and takes decades to complete requires a champion. A champion that can communicate what is possible. Convince others that the goals are achievable and to gain support,” Lohman wrote in an email. “And to stay committed through the end. That is Bill Ellenbogen. Every trail needs a Bill Ellenbogen.”
A life with a few chapters
Like many in the area, Tech brought Ellenbogen to Blacksburg. The New York state native played football for the university, graduated in 1973 and embarked on a eight-year long pro career that included time with several National Football League teams.
Ellenbogen said he started his pro football career with the Kansas City Chiefs, which he joined as a free agent. There, he was converted from a defensive to offensive lineman.
Ellenbogen got cut and joined the Houston Oilers—now the Tennessee Titans—in 1974. Over the next six years, he played for the Washington Redskins—recently renamed to the Washington Football Team—the New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons. He also spent some time in the Canadian Football League during that stretch.
Ellenbogen’s pro career ended in 1980 after he was cut by the Falcons and following some shoulder and knee surgeries. He was able finish his master’s degree at about that time due to his completion of coursework throughout his playing years.
Success, however, didn’t come immediately.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I bartended for a couple years,” Ellenbogen said. “I was kind of lost.”
He eventually operated his own Blacksburg restaurant, Bogen’s, for 22 years. The restaurant was where 622 North is at now.
While also starting to involve himself in town affairs, Ellenbogen transitioned to being a real estate developer. Among his major projects over years has been the University Mall, of which he said he is still 50% owner.
With the mall, Ellenbogen said he has pushed for non-traditional tenants such as restaurants and the Weight Club, places that still call on patrons to frequent in person. He also worked with the Virginia Tech Foundation to build the nearby Gateway Center, which he said helps provide a customer base for mall tenants.
Ellenbogen said he has stepped away from pure retail with the mall due to the rise of platforms such as Amazon, which has complicated the future of shops.
“Traditional retail is not coming back … It’s gone forever, and the pandemic has accelerated that,” he said.
Ellenbogen is still heavily involved in real estate. Among other projects, he’s looking to build a shell building on North Main that could house a variety of uses and has made offers on some land in Blacksburg.
His work on recreation projects is not over yet, he said. He’s working on raising funds to eventually take the Huckleberry over Prices Fork via a pedestrian bridge, an addition he said will significantly improve safety in that area.
Some leaders across Montgomery County also plan to turn to Ellenbogen for help on an outdoors project even more ambitious than the Huckleberry. Tentatively named the Valley to Valley trail, the vast system would connect trail networks in the Roanoke Valley to those in the New River Valley, including the Huckleberry.