Debra Frawley, PEC Trails & Recreation Program Coordinator
Building a Destination
Trails are community assets that attract people to visit our region and make it easier for residents to be active for recreation and exercise. They provide views of scenic river expanses and dramatic cliff faces, offering city-dwellers a means of escape from the stress of urban life. Passing through tunnels and across former railroad bridges, and within sight of artifacts from an earlier time – like old coaling towers or turntables – trails serve as a living connection to our region’s industrial heritage. Yet, unlike many of the local economies those industries once anchored, trails are here to stay. They are resources that cannot be exported or outsourced.
For all of these reasons and more, PEC is proud to be part of the Industrial Heartland Trails Coalition (I Heart Trails or IHTC for short), a multi-state coalition of trail advocates including government, non-profit, and private foundation entities working to create a shared-use system of trails that will ultimately connect 48 counties in western Pennsylvania, New York, eastern Ohio and West Virginia. IHTC stakeholders are united by a shared vision of trail-linked communities comprising a larger regional destination, allowing local and visiting trail users to bike from trail to trail, city to city, and town to town. We are already nearly halfway to our eventual goal of more than 1,450 miles of trails.
The Power of Collaboration
Trail groups and supporters across the region understand the power of banding together to build on one another’s successes. We believe that linking major destinations — Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Morgantown, Erie, Akron, Parkersburg, and the towns and country in between — will benefit the broader region and individual trail projects alike.
These benefits are not limited to improving quality of life for residents – indeed, the overall economic impact from trail users has proven to be significant. For example, a 2013 study on 66 miles of existing trail sections along the Erie to Pittsburgh Trail corridor showed an annual impact of $7 million in just four small towns. As individual trails are connected to create longer routes and varied experiences of small towns, rural natural areas and big cities, that impact will also increase. Small businesses are already springing up to provide services for trail users, and existing businesses are serving new customers as the region evolves into an interconnected trail destination.
With more than 600 miles of trails already connected, IHTC is well on its way to realizing its vision by the target date of 2033. This success is a direct result of the cooperative and collaborative way in which our membership is organized. The Coalition itself is not on the ground building the trail; rather it helps local trail advocates gain the capacity to build trails and connect to each other. IHTC markets the larger vision, makes the case for funding, provides GIS and other planning tools, and collects data on user counts and business impacts to help bolster the economic case for trail development at the local level.
The Trail Ahead
Looking forward, I Heart Trails will continue working to identify gaps in the system and what will be needed to close them. Members will continue assisting one another through working groups in each of the eight corridors, using the expertise and skills they have gained by solving problems on their own trails.
For more information, we invite you to visit www.ihearttrails.com and follow our progress on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/industrialheartlandtrails/.