Economy & Community Development


The Rails to Trails Conservancy, wrote in the “Economic Benefits of Trails and Greenways,” that trails are like a magnificent gem on display, attracting visitors from near and far.  “Many communities realize the economic potential of these highly desirable recreation destinations.  Trails and greenways bring growth in construction and maintenance as well as tourism-related opportunities like river rafting tours, bike rentals, restaurants and lodging.  Greenways can encourage new residents to settle in an area.  Young people and families are attracted to places that provide opportunities for easy access to outdoor recreation. Greenway trails provide such accessibility since they connect population centers to parks and other natural amenities.

The economic benefits of trail development are well documented.  Numerous studies and surveys have concluded that trail development can be a component of a community’s economic development program.

A National Park Service study revealed that the economic impact of a trail involves a combination of newly created trail-related jobs and the expansion of existing businesses related to travel, equipment, clothes, food, souvenirs and maps.  That is only the beginning of the importance these amenities can have for a community’s economy.  Trails and greenways can increase perceived quality of life in a community, and consequently attract new businesses.”

 “According to a 1998 study, the direct economic impact of the Great Allegheny Passage exceeded $14 million a year—even though the trail was only half-finished at that time.  In Confluence, Pennsylvania, one of the project’s first trailhead towns, the trail has encouraged the development of several new businesses and a rise in real estate values.”

Referring to the Greater Allegheny Passage, U.S. Congressman John P. Murtha (D-Penn) is quoted as stating, “The Trail is already attracting a lot of people, and were just starting to market it.  It’s a major asset for our region, not only because of the tourist dollars it’s attracting, but also because it’s a piece of our economic rebuilding efforts.”

In an article written by Christopher Swope about “America’s Green Mayors” the following excerpt provides an example of economic development from trail programs in our region.  “Waterfront greenway rejuvenating a city is a familiar story to Pittsburgh’s Tom Murphy.  In eight years as mayor, Murphy has led the charge to transform the Iron City’s waterfront from an industrial eyesore into a recreational oasis with miles of trails.  “Mayor Murphy appreciates how quality of life is important to urban living,” says John Stephen, executive directory of Pittsburgh’s additional 15.”  “As Pittsburgh residents rediscover the pleasure of a riverfront stroll, developers are following close behind.  The city’s most expensive housing is going up near the waterfront, along with offices, museums and two publicly funded sports stadiums.

“There’s several billion dollars in new development directly connected to those trails.” Murphy says.  “It’s not only because of the trails, but the trails add additional value.”  “To support his vision for greenspace along the city’s three rivers, Murphy took a big risk his first year in office.  He put up $9 million in city money to buy more than 130 acres of former steel mill land.  That and other land purchases ensured that the city, not private developers, would control the new waterfront’s destiny.”  “I always thought that Pittsburgh’s greatest resource was its waterways,” Murphy says.  “And our ability to connect to them was essential to make Pittsburgh a city with vitality again.”

“As the city began to develop the land, Murphy vigorously fought to preserve access for public trails along the riverfront.  This sometimes put the mayor in awkward situations, such as the time when the Pittsburgh Steelers sought to build a new football practice facility along the Monongahela River.   Team plans put the 100-yard field right up against the river, but Murphy convinced the Steelers to build an 80-yard field instead and leave room for a waterfront trail.  It was a victory for public access, but it opened Murphy to criticism from die-hard football fans who blame the mayor each time the Steelers fall short of the end zone by 20 yards or less.”  “Murphy, an avid jogger and bicyclist, sees the riverfront trails as more than a recreational facility and a catalyst for development.  They are also a vital part of the city’s transportation infrastructure.  Hundreds of bicyclists commute to work every day on the new trail network.”

“Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, testifying at a Congressional hearing, credited trail construction for contributing significantly to a dramatic downtown revitalization.  Miles of trails now connect millions of dollars of economic development, including new stadiums, housing, office space, and riverfront parks.”

In the early ninety’s a study of the Oil Creek Bike Trail (Penn State University, 1992) in Pennsylvania revealed the average visitor spending $25.85 per day.  Rail Trails are established and have a lengthy record of accomplishment as to providing an economic stimulus to the community.

The Economic Impact of Ghost Town Trail in the Indiana and Cambria Counties Region (completed in October 1996), was studied and the survey concluded that  The total economic impact, when multiplied by the estimated 66,253 people that used the trail during 1996, was approximately $362,000 -- $221,000 from residents expenditures and $140,000 from nonresidents’ expenditures.

Shortly after visiting the Youghiogheny River Trail, in southwestern Pennsylvania, Robert Benns and his wife purchased a run down trailside building and converted it to the River’s edge Café that now serves over 1000 meals per day.

The 1999 Heritage Rail Trail, York, Pa survey confirmed that the York County Parks Department indicated that economic growth related to the use of the Heritage Rail trail will continue for decades.  Since the opening of the first section of the Heritage Rail Trail in 1996, a sense of community has developed around the trail. “It has become a place to meet friends and a place to reconnect to oneself at a slower pace.” The trail is also an economic benefit to York County and will continue to draw people to the region.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), tourism is the second largest industry in the Commonwealth and nearly one-fifth of Pennsylvania’s tourists travel to enjoy its outdoor amenities. A recent Pennsylvania study noted that in 2002, recreational tourism accounted for 459,000 jobs statewide, an increase of 100,000 from 1998.  In addition, the report noted, “there is also evidence to demonstrate that communities with recreational greenways have witnessed significant increases in real estate values.”

In 2002, York County also published a study of the Heritage Rail Trail, which had been in operation for three years. The study, Heritage Rail Trail County Park 2001 User Survey and Economic Impact Analysis, concluded that trail users were having a measurable, positive impact on the York County economy. Specifically, the report stated:  In terms of economic impact, 72% of the respondents indicated they had purchased “hard goods” in the past year in conjunction with their use of the trail. The majority of these purchases were bicycles and bike supplies that resulted in an average purchase amount of $367.12. While these types of purchases are not annually recurring, even with the most conservative usage estimate they amount to millions of dollars in sales.  Even more significant is the purchase of “soft goods” (water, soda, candy, ice cream, lunches, etc.). 65.6% of the respondents indicated that they purchased these types of items on their most recent trip to the trail.  The average purchase amount per person was $8.33. Considering that the average user makes several trips to the trail on an annual basis, at the minimum these types of purchases are contributing several hundred thousand dollars to the York County economy. Moreover, these types of purchases are recurring year after year. Only 15% of the respondents indicated that they did not make a purchase in conjunction with their use of the trail.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance conducted a user survey of their trail system, including 100 of the 150 continuous miles of the Great Allegheny Passage, between Pittsburgh, PA and Cumberland MD as well as the Montour Trail near Pittsburgh International Airport. Their study, the 2002 User Survey for the Pennsylvania Allegheny Trail Alliance, asked information on trail use, distances traveled, spending in local communities, and spending on bikes and equipment.  The survey indicated that 59% of trail users made some type of small item purchase, such as food, clothing, and gas, at businesses in local trail-related communities.  The average person spent $8.84 per trip on small purchases.  Per-trip spending varied at different trailheads surveyed, ranging from $2.87 per person at the Montour Trail to $15.61 at the Confluence trailhead of the Great Allegheny Passage.  Spending varied substantially with distances traveled, ranging from $4.03 per person per trip for those traveling less than 10 miles (one way) to a trailhead; to $15.44 per person per trip for those traveling more than 60 miles.  13.3% of trail users stayed overnight during their trail visit, and the average number of nights stayed among those users was 2.4 nights.

An article written by Gene Bisbee was entitled “Build It and They Will Come and Spend; The Pennsylvania's Pine Creek Rail Trail”  The trail is located in northern Pennsylvania and is called the Pine Creek Rail Trail which meanders 62 miles along a river that passes through a valley aptly called the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.  The trail was voted by USA Today as one of the "10 great places to take a bike tour."  “The Rails to Trails Conservancy conducted The Pine Creek Rail Trail survey in 2006 which proves the adage heard in the 1986 movie Field of Dreams: "Build it and they will come."  “The survey found that not only do they come, but also they contribute to the local economies.  The Pine Creek survey determined that visitors spend from $5 million to $7 million a year, most of which is spent in the local communities along the trail.  While some of the spending for "hard goods" such as bicycles went to businesses around the state, local spending for food and snacks totaled $2.5 million to $3.6 million and for lodging tallied between $1.3 million to $1.9 million.  The trail's impact on the economy has been great. 82% of the respondents said they had purchased bikes, accessories or clothing for an average expenditure of $354.  Further, 86% reported they spent money on such "soft goods" as lunches, ice cream, drinks to the tune of an average $30 per trip.  Another boon to the local economy, 57% said they spent at least one night in the area. On average, the overnighters spend just over 3 nights per visit and spend $69 per night.  Owners of general stores, restaurants and hotels in towns along the route were interviewed, and they all agreed that business had picked up since the trail opened, and many had added new products and more employees.”  To cater to the needs of recreational users, new service businesses, such as bike shops, canoe & kayak rentals, restaurants, campsites, and bed and breakfasts often spring up around recreational greenways. These new businesses bring new jobs and additional tax dollars to the host municipalities.”

These studies and surveys strongly suggests that, leaving aside all the other benefits of Scenic Trails & Greenways as reported in the “Benefits of Greenways: A Pennsylvania Study”, that recreation trails are a strong resource that can assist in positive economic change.  The trails economic benefits and the president’s stimulus package should encourage Beaver and Allegheny County leaders and residents to continue what President Teddy Roosevelt started when he set aside nearly 230 million acres of land as parks and nature preserves.  Roosevelt believed that each generation has a duty to preserve our most beautiful places and incredible vistas for the generations that follow.   

Beaver & Allegheny County can now join together and support new trail development by beginning to spread the crushed limestone or asphalt along the ameliorating Ohio River, one of the most economically significant rivers in the world.

 Carol M. Browner, Administrator, Environmental Protection Agency in a speech delivered to the Rails to Trails Conference in Pittsburgh, PA on June 25, 1999 stated: “As Teddy Roosevelt and his generation recognized their duty to save our most beautiful places -- our greatest places - so must we recognize our duty to grow different, to grow smart.  To recreate that which made this country so great -- a sense of community -- we need to create those shared places, be they trails, local parks, or perhaps even a simple sidewalk.  Shared places where we can come to know our neighbors as more than someone we simply pass in the car -- windows rolled up -- a small wave the extent of our communication."

"I thank all of you for what you do and the difference you make. Something is happening in America -- city-by-city, town by town, neighborhood by neighborhood. Communities are being reborn. And that is a great thing, not just for us, but our children and our children's children."

"I am fortunate to live in such a place -- to raise my son in such a place -- to know the name of every child on my block and how they are doing in school.  This afternoon, I am sure all of the parents will gather together on the sidewalk and review those end-of-the-year report cards the kids will be bringing home today."

"Some would say I live in the city.  I would say I live in a neighborhood -- a community -- and what a wonderful place it is. “

Authored by Dr. Vincent  Troia, January 2009.