Rail-trails provide excellent recreation and transportation opportunities, preserve critical open space, create natural corridors for wildlife and enhance communities in the process. But rail-trails do even more: they bring money into the communities through which they pass.
Trails are highly desirable destinations for an increasing number of people. Trail users need food, lodging and sometimes fuel. They also need special clothes, shoes and equipment for running, hiking, biking, skiing, skating, horseback riding and snowmobiling. Many of them buy souvenirs and other items during the trip, or combine the trail experience with another type of revenue-generating activity
A major 1992 study of three rail-trails by the National Park Service has shown that the total 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.
Just how much can a rail-trail impact a community? The above study found that the average user of the Heritage Trail in rural lowa spent $9.21 per day. The figure for Florida's Tallahassee-St. Marks Trail was $11.02, and for urban California's Lafayette-Moraga Trail, $3.97. With use in the tens and hundreds of thousands, the total annual economic benefit for each of the three trails ranged from $12 million to $1.8 million per year. Considering that Americans used rail-trails 85 million times in 1993, communities that have responded to trail users have profited generously.
Trail-related and trailside businesses vary and may include bike shuttle services, campgrounds, restaurants, concession stands, motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments. Businesses that spring up or are revitalized because of a trail are as different as the people who run them. For example:
Before the Katy Trail went through his back yard in Defiance, Missouri, woodworker Karl Koenig barely got by on a few commissions. Since the trail opened, Koenig's Carpenter Love Shop has been deluged with surprised and appreciative browsers and buyers. Koenig today has a mailing list of over 100,000 people.
It took 17 years to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and build the Minuteman Trail near Boston, but the wait may have been worth it for The Bike Stop. It served an amazing 1,800 people on a single beautiful Saturday in 1994. The Minuteman has also been good for Steve's Ice Cream Shop in Arlington, which serves about 200 more people a week, and the Gap clothing store in Lexington, which claims a 30 percent business increase because of the trail.
The downtown area of Dunedin, Florida was suffering a 35 percent storefront vacancy rate in the early 1990s until an abandoned CSX railroad track became the phenomenally successful Pinellas Trail. Now, storefront occupancy is 1OO percent, old establishments are remodeling and business is booming.
Peak-season hotel rooms along Wisconsin's 32-mile Elroy-Sparta State Park Trail are booked up to a full year in advance. A state study of the trail revealed that the destination is so desirable that the average visitor travels 228 miles to experience it. Half of all the trail's users are out-of-state visitors who bring "new" money into Wisconsin.
After biking the Youghiogheny River Trail in southwestern Pennsylvania, Robert Benns and his wife purchased a rundown trailside building and converted it into the River's ridge Cafe which now serves over 1,000 meals a day
An additional benefit of rail-trails is the revenue they produce for the state and their communities through taxes from trail-related sales. For example, a recent study of Maryland's Northern Central Rail-Trail found that while the trail's management and maintenance cost to the public in 1993 was $191,893, the trail-related tax income to the state totaled $303,750.
The loss of railroad service can economically devastate small towns in America. But rail-trails have helped revitalize these communities. Here's what a few local people have said about it:
"The bike shops are overloaded with sales. They can't assemble bikes quick enough."
"The bike trail was the boost that Wonewoc needed, and it instilled a tremendous community pride here. It brought people in this community together "
"Undeveloped, it was a nightmare, but developed, it is a crown jewel."
"It started as conservation and preservation of abandoned rail lines. Then it broadened in scope to include tourism, economic development and transportation. People have begun to realize there are other advantages such as health and fitness
Rail-trails provide countless opportunities for economic renewal and growth. As people spend more time on trails they are also spending mare money near the trails and an their way to them. As more establishments recognize the purchasing power of cyclists, walkers, runners and others, they are orienting their merchandise, advertising and service toward trail users.
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