If you’ve ever explored the streets of historic Jim Thorpe, participated in the well-attended Tomato Festival in Pittston, or dined in Milford after a trek through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, you’ve experienced the charm of an outdoor town. You may soon be able to experience more of them, as more Pennsylvania communities embrace the “Outdoor Towns” model.
Outdoor towns embrace the outdoor experiences around them — such as parks, trails, rivers, and lakes — and connect that with delicious places to eat, tempting stores to shop in, and comfortable places to stay. These towns provide a tourism experience like no other and have become a draw for individuals, couples, and families, especially as the COVID pandemic wanes. For the adrenaline seeker, many outdoor towns even offer exciting ways to experience these familiar places: whether you enjoy whitewater rafting, mountain biking, or even skydiving… adventure awaits!
Outdoor towns are typically small communities that have come to rely on the ecotourism industry for economic stability. But it wasn’t always that way. In Pennsylvania, where the decline of coal mining and the railroad industry devastated many towns and cities, citizens were left wondering how they would ever bounce back. As these communities embraced the use of parks, converted old rail lines for trails, and enhanced conservation efforts in state forests, their appeal began to turn around. Today, over 100 million people participate in ecotourism activities within outdoor towns across the US every year.
PEC partnered with PA DCNR to conduct a pilot program in the northeastern Pennsylvania communities of Forest City Borough and the City of Carbondale
What makes a town an Outdoor Town?
An Outdoor Town is a place that uses natural assets to bring people together to revitalize economies. Outdoor Towns are fun and welcoming, they invite all people to recreate outside, and they have easy access to recreation for hiking, biking, paddling, hunting, fishing, or wildlife viewing. Outdoor Towns embrace nearby parks, trails, rivers, lakes, and forests as valuable assets to be protected and enhanced. Ultimately an Outdoor Town is a vibrant community that connects people seeking outdoor experiences with places to eat, stay, and shop.
In partnership with PEC, McCollom Development Strategies, LLC created a “Do it Yourself” Outdoor Town Toolkit (outdoortowns.org). The tool kit is a 7-step process designed to assist communities in capitalizing on their outdoor recreational to revitalize their local economies. The toolkit lays out steps along a pathway to help communities make their towns great places to live, visit, and explore the outdoors. It is intended to be an entry-level resource for use by self-motivated communities. It encourages outdoor and nature-based community development by providing easy to access educational content, inspiring case studies, best practices, tools, templates, and links to available resources.
To test the efficacy of the toolkit, PEC partnered with PA DCNR to conduct a pilot program in the northeastern Pennsylvania communities of Forest City Borough and the City of Carbondale. These communities, located six miles apart, are connected by the Lackawanna River and the Lackawanna River Heritage Trail. Both communities applied to the PA DCNR Peer Grant Program to fund a consultant, Eastwick Solutions, to guide them through the process. Eastwick not only facilitated the communities’ efforts with the project, but also evaluated and provided feedback to PEC on the Outdoor Town process.
Both communities had their own unique assets and resources that aided them throughout the process. Both exceed expectations and continue to meet and work on projects. Forest City Borough’s Action Team was recently approved by the borough as the Forest City Community and Economic Advisory Board. The City of Carbondale is capitalizing on the success of this pilot by undergoing the Heart and Soul Process, a four-phase, step-by-step process that brings residents together to identify and honor the unique character of their town and the emotional connection of the people who live there.
There are tweaks to be made for Outdoor Towns process, but it is another tool in the toolkit that helps Pennsylvanians reconnect with natural resources, stimulate economic investment, and develop a personal commitment to their communities.