Florida's decision this week to set aside $50 million for the creation of a 275-mile cross-state trail is not only great news for those of us who love trails, biking, riding and hiking - it is also a tremendous shot in the arm for thousands of main street businesses and the state's economy.
Long gone are the days when a "trail" was merely a quiet place to take a leisurely stroll, pedal your bike and appreciate chirping birds and swaying branches.
Trails are now multi-million dollar economic engines, critical investments at the heart of an outdoor recreation economy in which Americans spend $646 billion every year, $38.3 billion of that in Florida. Did you know that Americans now spend more money each year on bicycling gear and trips ($81 billion) than they do on airplane tickets and fees ($51 billion)?
Which is why $50 million to create a coast-to-coast trail across Florida is a savvy investment in our state's tourism infrastructure, and one which will pay for itself many times over in a few short years.
This is not speculation. All across America, states with less-established tourism industries than Florida's are building sustainable, growing economies around destination trails. The prime example is the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage through western Maryland and Pennsylvania, which generates $40 million in direct spending by trail tourists each year, single-handedly sustaining small communities and sparking new commercial activity in large ones.
But destination trails are also driving the establishment of new businesses and boosting local economies in Michigan, West Virginia, California, Ohio, Utah, Montana, New York... it's a long list, and growing.
Republican Senator Andy Gardiner and Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad head a group of officials and supporters who deserve credit for their leadership and for envisioning how this facility will help re-shape Central Florida and contribute to a new and evolving Spacecoast economy.
RTC and our local partners like the Florida Greenways and Trails Foundation worked closely with Sen. Gardiner in developing and promoting such an investment in Florida's trails. It is terrific to see an elected official who is listening to his constituents and understands the strong local support for such projects in the region.
Already the national trail community is abuzz about the prospect of a 275-mile trail from St. Petersburg to Titusville. This $50 million investment to connect a number of existing rail-trails to create a continuous trail adventure across Florida will bring visitors from across America and around the world, and put this state at the forefront of a sustainable economic boom.
There is already evidence of the economic potential of rail-trail systems that connect our communities here in Florida. In downtown Dunedin, private business occupancy rates increased from 30 percent to 95 percent following the establishment of the Pinellas Trail. The West Orange, Little Econ and Cady Way trails in Orange County supported 516 jobs and had an economic impact of $42.6 million in 2010, according to a study conducted by the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council. In 2009, Florida's eight state trails and the Cross Florida Greenway had more than four million visitors, generating an estimated economic impact of $95 million.
This is without even touching upon the proven positive impact of local trail systems on real estate values and liveability indexes - two data points which are crucial to a region's ability to resist recession and retain residents and businesses.
So, congratulations to Florida's elected leaders for their wise and far-sighted investment in the state. At a time when the public is demanding fiscal responsibility, this investment in creating a remarkable destination trail will continue to reap returns for Floridian residents and business for many years to come.