RTC's Jake Lynch is out on the 2012 Greenway Sojourn from June 17 to 24. He's visiting towns and exploring trail-related businesses along the route from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh, Pa., and blogging about some of his experiences.
I had read plenty of data and economic reports about the financial impact of trails tourism. And I had seen the trailhead parking lots full of vehicles with bike racks and horse trailers, seen the trail wayfinding signs going up outside small town burrito places, cafes and grocery stores. But arriving yesterday afternoon in Brunswick, a small town along the C&O Canal towpath in Maryland, I saw and felt the phenomenon of trail tourism like never before.
I was the outsider in a car, having driven in with a bunch of ride supplies from Washington, D.C. First thing I saw was a group of five or six riders mulling outside a newly opened bike store; a compact, quiet, cinematic main street; one stop light; a place called Mommer's, a diner, an ice cream store, a sign welcoming home local troops.
The next block along, I saw a genuine crowd. Outside Beans in the Belfrey--cafe set inside a beautiful old church--were a dozen bikes, and more riders looking for somewhere to lock theirs. Inside, the place was packed. There was barely a spare seat, and of the 30 or so patrons, 28 of them were riders on the Sojourn.
I had to wait until the line went down until I could speak to the owner and ask her whether she notices if the trail has much of an impact on her business.
"Days like this the trail is the business," she said, between customers. A few minutes later a third employee arrives to help with the rush.
Out on the main street, I met a guy handing out an informational brochure of businesses and services available in Brunswick, and how to get to them. His name was Walt Stull, and he was one of those guys that every small community seems to have--councilmember, historian, on the board of the local railroad museum. We started talking, and I explained to him that I was from Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and was working on a video about the economic impact of trail tourism.
"As soon as I heard you guys were coming through, I called all the businesses and told them to stay open, even though it's a Monday," Stull said. He gave me a bunch of the brochures to take down to the Sojourn camp. Back there, I heard at least a dozen people talking about the cafe in the old church, stories of who bought what at the bike shop.
But looking more critically, it isn't all bikes and bucks for the people of Brunswick. No doubt for every big day like this one, with 250 riders coming through in one hit, there are lulls, winters, ordinary mid-weeks. This kind of peak and trough commercial cycle doesn't often sustain a robust local economy in the long run.
But the good news for the people of cities and towns like Brunswick is that biking and trails tourism are built on the most sustainable of passions: the outdoors, fresh air, physical exercise, adventure close to home, economical travel. And, like Brunswick, there are many main streets across America where a couple of new stores and a cafe where you can barely get a seat would be very welcome as signs of great optimism.