If You Build It, Will They Come? The Case for Trails Is More Compelling Than Ever for Municipalities

The “Pennsylvania Environmentalist” is intended for members, friends, and stakeholders of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and provides a periodic perspective on the issues we face and the manner in which we address them.

The Pennsylvania Environmentalist: Vol. 2, No. 1, November 2017

Trail building has become a cottage industry for the new millennium.

In less than a generation, pedestrian and bike trails have exploded in popularity across the country and in most parts of the world, fueled by the convergence of heightened awareness of healthy lifestyles, thousands of miles of abandoned railways, the lure of a safe venue for family biking, the growth of adventure travel, and other trends.

In fact, trails have even become vacation destinations unto themselves, with amateur enthusiasts spending millions each year on extended trips along scenic rail-trails from coast to coast.

Today, there are nearly 25,000 miles of converted rail-trails in use throughout the United States with thousands of additional miles being added each year.

One of the most popular is the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), which spans 150 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland, where it connects with the C&O Towpath and extends to Washington, D.C.

“Last year, cyclists and walkers made over a million visits to the Great Allegheny Passage, and drove tens of millions of dollars into towns along the trail,” says Bryan Perry, Executive Director of the Allegheny Trail Alliance, which organized and led the development of the GAP.

Indeed, a 2008 study by the Alliance found that the trail generated over $40 million in direct annual spending and another $7.5 million in wages, making it an important economic generator in the region. Since that time, the GAP has only increased in popularity and usage, and trail-related businesses throughout the region have grown as a result, and many small, family businesses have grown right along with it.

“Over the last decade, entrepreneurs have launched bed-and-breakfasts, cafes, and shuttle services,” says Perry. “Towns like West Newton, Connellsville, and Confluence have attracted new trailside businesses, including bike shops and campgrounds.  Trail traffic is growing in whitewater-friendly Ohiopyle.  Garrett and Dunbar are poised for growth where the GAP draws riders from linking trails.  Because we draw thousands of through-riders, multiday journeys are common, and people spend money — not just on ice cream, but on lodging, entertainment, gear, and meals.”

Among the most striking success stories is that of Confluence, Pennsylvania, population 834.

A small town with a total area of 1.6 square miles on the Youghiogheny River, Confluence is the first GAP trail stop after the ever-popular Ohiopyle. Sister’s Café, a small diner in the center of town, was a favorite spot for area residents, since there was virtually no other restaurant in town. But Sister’s is just a short hop off the GAP, with trail signage showing the way into town, and bike riders looking for a place to stop, eat, and rest quickly found their way.

Because we draw thousands of through-riders, multiday journeys are common, and people spend money -- not just on ice cream, but on lodging, entertainment, gear, and meals.

Bryan Perry, Allegheny Trail Alliance

As usually happens with trail-related businesses, word spread quickly among the biking public, particularly where good food at reasonable prices is involved, and Sister’s rapidly became a biker favorite.

It didn’t take long before the little restaurant became well-known among riders on the GAP, and trail guides, social media reviews, and its bike-friendly accommodations have made it one of the best-known stops on the 150-mile trail.

Now, Sister’s has competition. Two new cafes, a bike shop, and bed and breakfasts have opened in Confluence, all catering to trail riders drawn to the small-town charm, home-cooking, and family-owned small business hospitality. And the “Bicycles Welcome” signs that guide riders into the streets of Confluence are ushering a new era of prosperity that long-time residents have been waiting for.

“Pittsburgh has the hospitals and the colleges,” says David Kahley, president of The Progress Fund, which has been spearheading investments in trail towns for the past twenty years. “Small towns don’t have these resources, so they need to come up with their own brand of economic development.”

“But one trip to West Newton or Ohiopyle on a summer day is all you need to be convinced,” he adds.

The Rise of En-Trail-Preneurs

It didn’t take much to convince Sara Petyk.

Petyk, a tourism professional living in Boston, saw an opportunity to blend her love of biking with her career. She started Bike-the-GAP.com to offer cyclists like her a unique service: tour packages on the Great Allegheny Passage.

“We’re kind of a mix between a traditional tour operator and a travel agent,” she says. “People pay one price and they get an entire trip experience. We handle the setup along the way and they just ride the trail on their own.”

Things like bike rentals and side trip excursions are extra, but that hasn’t slowed business at all.

“Our business essentially tripled the first two years and then its doubled in the years since then. We’ve really seen a spike in growth,” she says.

Amy Camp managed the Trail Town Program for Kahley’s Progress Fund before seeing an opportunity to start her own trail-based enterprise. Today, she runs CycleForward, a nature-based coaching and consulting business.

Her primary market is women in their peak career years in need of a career change or professional fulfillment. Camp maintains that a walk in the woods is good for the soul and provides a better therapeutic environment than an office and a desk.

“There’s all kinds of research that says that it’s good to be outside,” she says. “There’s something a little bit different when we’re walking side-by-side on a trail rather than sitting across from each other in an office.

“The focus is on you for an hour in a natural setting.  Clients tell me its positive for them…slowing down, being outside, and working on their agenda.”

And Camp’s business model seems to be paying off. Last fall brought her the largest number of clients she’s ever had, and surprisingly CycleForward has become a four season business.


  • In 2008 the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) generated over $40 million in direct annual spending and another $7.5 million in wages
  • Nationally, trail use delivers an estimated economic impact of more than $1 billion annually
  • Bike tourists spend 5x more per mile than car tourists

With the recent success of start-up businesses like Camp’s and Petyk’s and established businesses like Sister’s Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle, and literally hundreds of others, it’s easy to imagine how trails can represent economic opportunity for communities all across America.

And for good reason. The popularity of the GAP trail, like so many others across the country, has soared in recent years. More than one million people use the GAP, just one of hundreds of popular trails nationwide.

And all those people buy bikes, helmets, gear, food, lodging, ice cream, beer, soft drinks, and a whole host of other products and services that make riding the trails safe and fun.

“Trails are a ready-made, proven resource for would-be entrepreneurs,” says Frank Maguire, PEC’s program manager for trails and recreation. “Customers will find you and you can predict what they’re looking for.

“The breadth of things an entrepreneur can provide are easy to identify.”

Based on state economic data and reports from specific trails such as the GAP, the total annual impact of trail use in America is likely in excess of $1 billion. That’s billion with a “b.”

“There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that trails can be a driving force,” says Eric Oberg, director of development for the Rail to Trails Conservancy.

Kahley agrees. “A trail can make a 10-15% difference in a small trail town business, which is huge,” he says.

“Trails aren’t a million-dollar idea,” adds PEC’s Maguire. “but it’s a steady, stable trickle of income. If you have eight months of good weather each year, you’re going to have eight months of trail income.”

Marketing Trail Businesses

Trails are a unique travel destination that vary from those accessible by highways in ways that spell good news for small towns.

Trail-related businesses benefit from of a relatively low cost of marketing and promotion. Unlike restaurants and lodging establishments along highways or in large urban areas, businesses in small trail towns can attract all the business they can handle simply through advertising in trail maps, hand-made signage and a simple web site or social media site.

“A bike tourist, covering the same number of miles that a car tourist travels, spends five times more on the trail versus a highway,” adds Maguire. “That equates to five times more lodging and five times more meals.”

Maguire’s logic makes sense to anyone who spends even an afternoon on a trail. “Trails lend themselves to a slower experience, so people travelling by bike are more likely to sit down for a meal at a diner.”

“When you’re driving, you’re time focused. But when your biking, your more needs-focused. You’ll take ten minutes to wander around a town to find what you’re looking for. Not so on a highway.”

And there’s reason to believe that mainstream businesses are looking to tap into the exploding trail economy any way they can.

Convenience stores, hotels, casual restaurants, and others that are located within short distances of trails are making accommodations to welcome trail-based travelers with bike-friendly amenities, bike racks, signage, and services. And some communities are going so far as to provide vending machines on the trails that cater to bikers.

Oberg says that more and more trails are becoming travel destinations. “The number of trails that are long enough to bring outside money in is becoming longer and longer,” he says. “We’re starting to see trail tourists and businesses catering and marketing to that demographic.”

And the internet has rapidly responded to the need for useful information for trail users. Travel web sites like TripAdvisor, Yelp, and others are filled with customer reviews of trail businesses, cafes, B&B’s, and other trail-related service businesses. Trail users are expert in finding them and follow the recommendations of their fellow bikers faithfully.

And that doesn’t even include millions of trail-related posts on the major social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

21st Century Trails

With so much compelling evidence, are rural communities getting the message?

“Twenty years ago, we were being run out of towns with, at best, pitchforks and at worst, shotguns,” says RTC’s Oberg.

“Most communities nationally still don’t get it,” he adds. “But acceptance is growing. It’s not an initial ‘no’ anymore. Now its cautious curiosity.”

If there is a most common skeptic about trail development, it’s agricultural communities.

“It has to do with concern over adjacent property,” says Oberg. ”They’re large landowners and they’re concerned with giving up control.”

Twenty years ago, we were being run out of towns with, at best, pitchforks and at worst, shotguns... But acceptance is growing.

Eric Oberg, Rails to Trails Conservancy

Aside from the reluctance to plow under productive farmland for a trail, some farm owners are concerned about introducing a criminal element onto their land and into their communities.

Some have gone so far as to express fears over “agri-criminals” spreading toxic agents on their crops and making a quick getaway on a proposed trail.

“It’s undeniable,” says Oberg, “that trails have not been a precursor to crime.”

Indeed, trail users on average, tend to be from higher socio-economic demographic populations who have no history or interest in engaging in criminal activity.

“If you’re concerned about someone on a trail stealing something from your backyard, that’s simply not going to happen,” says Maguire.

Another big concern for many municipalities is long-term liability.  But trail advocates contend that investing in the construction of a trail upfront goes a long way to reducing the liability of long-term maintenance issues that arise from poor construction. The cost of ongoing care and upkeep is greatly offset by forming volunteer groups to do preventive maintenance.

Not surprisingly, the experience of so many “trail towns” across the United States has helped inform municipal officials and changed the conversation significantly over the past decade.  In Western Pennsylvania, the overwhelming success of the GAP has spawned interest in making connections between major metropolitan areas to give riders a multi-day experience and give local communities an opportunity to spawn new businesses and create jobs.

A case in point is the Industrial Heartland Trail, a project comprised over more than 100 local agencies and trail organizations in four states that have organized around a bold idea—a 1400-mile network of trails connecting major cities, small towns, historical sites, recreational amenities, and other trails and attractions. Already nearly 50% complete, this network coalition is making trail development a regional priority and opening the door to economic opportunities in communities that are sitting on a previously untapped resource.

“Trails are a resource that can’t be moved and will always be there for a community if they’re  maintained and preserved,” says PEC’s Maguire, a member of the Industrial Heartlands Trail Coalition. “Much of what PEC is doing in trail development is going into towns that have ridden the boom-bust cycle in the extraction economy. A trail can create civic pride, a tourism opportunity, a visitor experience, and something for local residents to point to,” he says.

Taking the Long-Term View

So why don’t all municipalities jump at the idea of a trail in their community?  Ask trail experts, and they’ll tell you that skeptics are now far fewer than ever before, but that there are still some who oppose trails simply because they oppose change of any kind.

“There are always people who will not agree, but who cares?” says Kahley. “If you spend a lot of time trying to convince the naysayers, then you’ll waste a lot of time. But if you focus on a small group of people who move things forward, then everybody eventually gets it.”

And Kahley should know. He’s been working in this field for over 30 years and believes in the basic rules of community development–keep at it and don’t worry about the few naysayers who enjoy the limelight.

“You help the early adopters, and you help them,” he adds.

But there’s universal agreement among the experts that there’s no such thing as a bad trail idea.

“I can’t think of a place where a trail was just plain wrong,” says Oberg. “There are examples of trails that weren’t well executed, but I can’t think of one that was a bad idea.”

Kahley agrees. “What do you have to lose?” he asks. “At the very least, you get a nice place for people in the community. But over time, you’ll be able to help small businesses make some money and help your town. It’s going to have a positive impact.”

One thing all experienced trail builders agree on is taking a long-term view. The idea of instant gratification or a sudden shot in the arm to a local economy simply isn’t likely to happen.

“It takes 20-25 years to build these things,” adds Kahley. And he adds that simply building a trail doesn’t guarantee that business opportunities will follow. Towns have to respond to the opportunity that a trail affords in order to reap the benefits.

If you spend a lot of time trying to convince the naysayers, then you’ll waste a lot of time. But if you focus on a small group of people who move things forward, then everybody eventually gets it.

David Kahley, The Progress Fund

That’s what Kahley’s Progress Fund is focused on. They’re a community development financial institution based in Greensburg, Pennsylvania that saw an opportunity to revitalize the regional economy through tourism, and trails have become a major part of that effort.

The Progress Fund’s Trail Town program works in small rural towns across western Pennsylvania and western Maryland, focusing on community and economic development around trail tourism and outdoor recreation. The purpose of this 11-year old program is to ensure that trail communities and businesses maximize the economic potential of the regions trails.

“While others focused on building the trails,” says Kahley, “we focused on building the towns. You have to couple trail building with economic development. We started the Trail Town Program to develop a system using best practices and spreading it to others.”

And the results of this work is now evident all along the GAP, as well as four other trails throughout the western Pennsylvania region.

“Other towns want to take advantage of it. Now when I go to these towns, they’re telling me how great it is.”

Oberg points to the Trail Town Program as a national model, but adds that communities have to embrace their trail as more than simply a local resource. He stresses the symbiotic relationship between trails and towns and cultivating the strengths of each to generate a trail-based destination.

“When I talk to people who go on long-distance trips,” says Oberg, “the first thing they talk about either people, they met, places they stayed, places they ate, etc.  It takes ten minutes before they talk about the trail itself.

“It’s always about the people and places. It’s the coolest social experiment ever.”

Previous Editions

Share This Page