Yesterday I posted an update on the status of the 2 bike trail construction projects currently underway in Kent. What I didn’t say was how excited I am about these projects — not just because I’m a bicyclist but because of the economic opportunities I think these trails will open up. I’m not suggesting that bike trails are some magic elixir that will solve all that ails us economically but they are another real quality of life enhancement that will help position Kent as a destination for people of all ages that share an appreciation for outdoor activities and natural amenities. The math is pretty simple: popular destinations bring greater numbers of people that spend more money that is used by businesses to grow and hire more people which contributes to the economic revival that we’re all working so hard to achieve.
Given my predisposition for favoring all things bicycling related I was glad to see validation in an article that describes the economic impacts of bike trails in nearby Pennsylvania.
It turns out that there’s been enough towns that have gone from aging and declining to reinvented and re-energized thanks to new bike and hike trails that they’ve created a whole new category of tourism called Trail Based Tourism.
Apparently location, location, location is still a truism in the real estate industry — and one of the best locations is turning out to be along a bike trail. Towns that have watched old rail lines sit idle as former manufacturing traffic packed up and headed to the far-east have witnessed a rebirth by attracting a new breed of customers of the two wheeled variety that come through their town using the old rail beds.
It seems that a customer is a customer no matter how they get to you — their money is just as green and their appetities may even be a little better since they had to work a little harder to get to you.
We have a great example of trail town conversion in Peninsula, Ohio. The folks in Peninsula were savvy enough to recognize the potential to use the Cuyahoga Valley National Park trail to be the spine of their hometown economy from which everything else is built around. The trail has spawned a whole host of trail related business spin-offs that welcome bike traffic and as that cluster has grown there’s enough of a concentration to really be a destination.
So if there’s a magic it’s in the mix that works to create great public space. We talk a lot about attracting this retail store or that restaurant — and those are important — but if you create great public space those things will take care of themselves. Forget the national name brand department store, the best anchor is vibrant public space and bike trails have proven to be a medium that helps that conversion process take place. Retail fads will come and go but great public space will live on as long as we homosapiens remain a social animal.
Our neighbors in Pennsylvania have had the benefit of watching the extension of bike trails across Pennsylvania coincide with the revival of struggling towns for years. And the thing is, if you put enough of those data points together you start to see a trend and those trends, standing the test of time become principles to live by.
Pennsylvania may not be the first to stake the claim for bike trail redevelopment but with a long history of coal mining they sure know how to spot a gold mine when they see one.
That’s great news for Pennsylvania towns but it’s also good news for us too. Despite the state boundary we share a lot in common with our Pennsylvania cousins and just as the President of Youngstown State said in his annual speech all of us need to stop thinking in small terms and start thinking as a super-region that stretches from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. That’s a message that economists have been recommending for years but it’s always been hard to translate that into real world things.
I think bike trails are a great small step to show what’s possible in the real world and with the prospect of a Cleveland to Kent to Youngstown to Pittsburgh to Washington DC bike trail to be completed in the next 10 years it’s time to look at how we can position Kent to take full advantage of our great location, location, location along that network.
Lessons Learned from Pennsylvania
Here’s a good link to see how Pennsylvania is using the bike trails as part of a broader economic stimulization strategy that they call The Great Alleghany Passage .
At the more local level here’s the Trail Towns organization that offers advice to leveraging trails — http://www.trailtowns.org/
WEST NEWTON — From her hot dog stand, Barb Philipp, 41, can see the tops of Trailside Restaurant’s patio umbrellas, a renovated West Newton visitors center, and the simple crushed-stone trail of the Great Allegheny Passage, which made it all possible.
This has been the busiest summer ever for her business, said Mrs. Phillip, who has been selling food and drinks to trail users from the same spot for six years.
There’s no doubt, she said, that the 150-mile long biking and hiking trail from McKeesport to Washington, D.C., is transforming the town at a much faster pace than any of its 3,000 residents ever expected.
“When you’re a small town, you don’t know if there is any economic future,” said George Sam of Downtown West Newton Inc., which has been working to revitalize the city’s Main Street.
“But when you bring a trail in that brings people from all over the world, all of a sudden we have a direction. We can be more than we are, we have assets to share,” he said.
The trail, which is slated to connect to Point State Park in Pittsburgh by this fall, is attracting entrepreneurs who see dollar signs in the increasing number of walkers, runners and bikers using it.
At the same time, money from state and county government is helping towns perk up. In West Newton, plans are in place for a new community square with a concert stage and park area.
In 2007, Somerset County officials counted 31 new businesses started as a direct result of the Great Allegheny Passage. The Trail Town Program, an arm of the non-profit Progress Fund and supported by government and foundation money, helped start 11 new businesses last year alone. Halfway into 2008, Trail Town has aided eight more, and assisted with another two.
“Of course it’s not like having a major industry that’s going to employ 5,000 people,” said Linda McKenna Boxx, president of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, the coalition of seven trail organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania and western Maryland that built and maintains the passage. “But it’s a lot of entrepreneurial outfits, a handful of employees in lodging, food services, bike rental and repair. It’s bit by bit.
“As the community starts to revitalize, people say, ‘Hey this is a great place to live,’ and it just adds to the quality of community life.”
Pioneers lead the way
Rod Darby and business partner John Markle opened their Trailside convenience store and restaurant in 2006 in West Newton, convinced their location — a mere 20 steps from the trail — would provide a steady stream of customers.
Two years — and one damaging fire — later, the business has tripled its sales, added a patio for outdoor dining, and fielded countless phone calls from other entrepreneurs looking for advice on starting a business along the trail.
“The traffic has increased tremendously,” Mr. Darby said while standing in the dining area of his restaurant, which recently hired a chef to expand the menu. “We have traffic from all over the world. Every day we have someone from some part of the country sitting in our restaurant.”
Mr. Markle said he has served customers from 48 of the 50 states and 13 foreign countries, including China, Japan, New Zealand and Israel.
What’s more, Trailside employs about 27 workers, many of them from West Newton.
An economic impact study conducted in 2007 determined the trail is generating $12.5 million in revenue and pouring more than $3 million in wages into trail-side communities.
In 2002, even before the Great Allegheny Passage joined the C&O Canal Towpath to Washington, D.C., about 350,000 people biked, hiked or walked some part of the passage, according to a study by the Trail Towns Program. Cathy McCollum, Trail Town’s regional director, predicts that number will be at least 1 million for 2008. Trailhead parking lots are full on the weekends.
Funding from state, county and local governments is helping, but so are business visionaries like Mr. Darby and Mr. Markle.
“We’re the explorers,” Mr. Markle said, referring to entrepreneurs who took on a sizable financial burden to start a business along the trial. “We have taken a risk and we hope it pays off.”
In Confluence, an increasing number of trail users have been staying in Carol Kemp’s bed and breakfast, about a mile from the trail. When she and her husband, David, took over the RiveRest in 2003, their customers came mostly from visitors to nearby Fallingwater, the house Frank Lloyd Wright designed for the Kaufmann family of Pittsburgh.
But these days, 50 percent of her business comes from the trail.
Spreading the word
Back in West Newton, Mr. Markle and Mr. Darby are eager for their neighbors to spruce up their properties, many of which are in need of repair or, at the least, a fresh coat of paint.
“We are at the very beginning of making this a very different community,” Mr. Markle said. “You have to bring facilities here that are world-class. I vow to show people something great can be done here.”
After biking about 16 miles on the trail last Thursday, Larry Kozlowski, 60, stopped for soup and a sandwich at Trailside.
It was his second visit to the restaurant since last week.
A great deal of business development along the trail can be attributed to the efforts of the Trail Town Program, which provides loans, support and guidance for start-up businesses.
“We work with communities to help them take better advantage of the growing trail market… such as putting in bike racks, safe street crossings, benches,” said Ms. McCollum of the Trail Town Program. “The community has to welcome the visitors.”
Ray Silbaugh, 61, is doing just that in his hometown of Confluence. Mr. Silbaugh returned there in 1993 to run a restaurant and hardware store after spending 28 years in Baltimore, Md. In that time, he has seen the town perk up and diversify, thanks to the talented entrepreneurs who set up shop there.
“They are very, very capable people and they have brought some talent with them,” Mr. Silbaugh said, noting that the newcomers have embraced the community by supporting local businesses, joining civic organizations and volunteering their time to help with marketing and Web development for the town.