“Businesses don’t move into buildings, they move into communities.”
On March 13, I had the opportunity to tour the REI distribution facility in Bedford, Pa., with Rep. Bill Shuster and a handful of economic development leaders and trail advocates, including Kevin Mills and Tom Sexton of the Rails to Trails Conservancy.
As the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Shuster has the responsibility for steering the next transportation bill through the House of Representatives, including the Transportation Alternatives Program. In the current political climate, federal programs that encourage how states generate funding priorities are not well received.
Indeed, current rhetoric focuses funding priorities on repairing the national highway system and not much more. Yet, we were at REI to demonstrate how bicycles and trails drive transportation needs and that federal spending needs to support all types of mobility. Without the local businesses, communities, and trails to generate the demand, there would not be a need to move freight around the country.
Over the course of an hour, our group walked through the cavernous distribution center, stopping at key points to discuss various aspects of REI’s business and how it’s connected to outdoor recreation. Shuster’s district (ninth) includes one of the best examples of a long distance trail—the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP)—and the difference it makes in the trail towns it passes through.
In our conversation with the Congressman, we talked about the businesses in trail towns like Connellsville that are benefitting from the 800,000 people that pass its doorstep on the trail every year. It was apparent that Shuster was well aware of this fact when he remarked with amazement about the increase in property values in Confluence, a town of 800 that is doing far better than similar towns because of the GAP.
The tour was also a chance to showcase how businesses seek out the types of communities that can support their workforce. Bedford County is great example of a place where not only is the highway infrastructure important for REI to build its 500,000 square foot warehouse, but also the proximity to outdoor recreation, including the GAP.
REI’s Director of Operations Tina Molski said that the quality of life amenities in the community helped contribute to the low employee turnover. In turn, those employees help ship out just under $2 million in product every day to people looking to explore the great outdoors.
The Transportation Alternative Program is just one small part of the overall federal funding for transportation, funded at just 2 percent of the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Funds, annually. This funding drives many small, locally-based projects forward that many of us have come to see as crucial to the quality of our communities.
As Bette Slayton from the Bedford County Development Association responded to the idea that a focus on businesses-supported spending was needed, she remarked, “Businesses don’t move into buildings, they move into communities.”
Here’s hoping the Congressman heard our message that trails mean business.