Dotty’s Café along Katy Trail State Park is known locally for its homestyle cooking | Photo by Danielle Taylor

“A Trail Town is a community through which [a trail] passes that supports [trail users] with services, promotes the Trail to its citizens and embraces the Trail as a resource to be protected and celebrated. Trail Towns are built on a relationship between a town, the Trail and its volunteers.”

  • Adapted from the North Country Trail Association

Trails can be valuable community assets and attractive destinations for visitors, drawing them into neighboring  communities and stimulating local businesses through spending on meals, lodging and gear. An economic impact study of the 34-mile Virginia Creeper Trail from 2004 revealed that non-local trail users generated $1.6 million in economic impacts in Washington and Grayson counties in southwest Virginia and supported the equivalent of more than 27 new full-time jobs. In South Carolina’s Greenville County, tourists drawn by the popular Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail boosted the local economy by $6.7 million.

However, the mere presence of a trail is usually not enough to reap such returns; strategies to maximize their economic potential need to be employed. Enticing people off the trail and into adjacent communities, where they can spend money and stimulate local economies, is the impetus behind the concept of trail towns.

Trail Town Programs

Formal trail town programs have traditionally been organized around long-distance trails, and they are most commonly found along hiking-only trails, such as the Appalachian Trail. However, a region can leverage any kind of long-distance trail for the creation of such a program: rail-trail, towpath or water trail, or trails dedicated to equestrian, snowmobile or off-highway vehicle use, for example.

In fact, the most well-known example of the concept can be found along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150-mile multi-use rail-trail between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, Maryland. The Progress Fund created the Trail Town Program® in 2007 to help revitalize communities along the GAP. The program’s activities include conducting economic impact studies and trail counts, producing consistent trail-wide marketing, establishing a business network, coaching business owners and providing them needed capital. These actions have allowed the program to register measurable successes: since its inception, visitors to the GAP have increased tenfold, and 65 new businesses and 270 new jobs have been created. The overall economic impact of the GAP now reaches a remarkable $50 million each year.

Along the Appalachian Trail –   which receives more than two million visitors and $27 million in local spending annually – fs  towns have every incentive to become a designated Appalachian Trail Community (ATC). The ATC program provides branded signage, media support and networking to its member communities, which now number more than 40. In Ohio, the Buckeye Trail Association maintains a dedicated Trail Town Coordinator staff position to manage their Buckeye Trail Towns Program. The staffer helps identify ways towns along the Buckeye Trail route can capitalize on the trail’s benefits. The Arizona Trail Association’s Gateway Communities benefit from marketing and technical advice to businesses. Their program includes towns directly along the Arizona Trail, but unlike other programs, it also includes nearby communities that offer amenities to trail users.

Some trail town programs cover a larger geography that encompasses multiple trails, such as a state. For example, Kentucky’s Office of Adventure Tourism certifies trail towns within the state.

Program

Trail Type

Year Launched

Designated Communities

Trail Town Program ®

Rail-trail

2007

21 (along 6 trails)

Appalachian Trail Community™ Program

Single-track

2010

40+

Canal Townships Partnership

Multi-use Path

2010

9

North Country Trail Town Program

Single-track

2011

19

Buckeye Trail Town Program

Single-track, multi-use, on-road

2011

6

Arizona Trail Gateway Community Program

Single-track

2011

33

Kentucky Trail Town Program

Various

2012

14

Starting a Trail Town Program

Objectives

Any trail town program should try to achieve these basic objectives:

  • Improve connectivity between the trail and the towns along its route
  • Improve services and amenities available in trail communities, ensuring that those investments are in the best interest of residents
  • Promote a culture of hospitality, stewardship and inclusivity in trail communities

Strategies for Success

Think regionally: It’s more effective to focus on a network of trail-friendly communities along a trail than it is to have an isolated effort in one town. A  region with a cohesive tourism strategy may attract more non-local visitors, amplify gains for individual communities, and also make trail town programs more attractive to funders.

Quantify success: Ensure that you are tracking your efforts. Use assessments to set a baseline and determine what indicators you will be using to measure your progress. The Progress Fund’s Trail Towns Program® measures growth through annual spending, business openings/expansions and jobs created. Invest in tracking results and focus on outcomes more than outputs. Check out Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Impact Survey to develop trail user baseline data of your own.  

RTC’s “Making the Value Case for Trails” webinar helps trail planners and advocates envision the full benefits of a trail network, including understanding how to assess and define the economic value of trails to make the case that public investment in trails has a long-term net positive value to residents and to government.

Attract heads on beds: According to research on the GAP, an overnight visitor will spend six times more than a day trip visitor. In order to benefit from this, communities along the trail will have to invest in accommodation, food, entertainment and bike retail options. This is an easier sell when the trail is long-distance. The longer a trail, the farther people will travel to reach it, and the more time they will spend traveling on it.

Getting Started

The Allegheny Trail Alliance (ATA) published the very first trail towns guide in 2005.Since then, its process has served as a model for other programs. The ATA’s strategy was itself adapted from the successful approach to downtown revitalization developed by the National Main Street Center. Their “Four Point Approach” consists of four parts: Organizing, Design, Economic Restructuring and Promotion. More recently, The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program® and others have elevated the conducting of assessments as a crucial activity to establish baselines and measure progress, so it should be considered its own phase. In fact, the most recent Trail Town Guide (2017) produced by The Progress Fund’s Trail Town Program® comprehensively details the steps required to successfully run a trail town program and should be read by anyone considering starting their own program. The Guide breaks down the process into five parts: Partnerships, Assessments and Research, Connecting Town to Trail, Development, and Marketing.

Trail Town Guide

The Progress Fund's Trail Town Guide comprehensively details the steps required to successfully run a trail town program.

Download Guide

Partnerships

  • Define the trail corridor, including its type, uses, endpoints, management structure and connections to other trails. Without a defined trail, there will be nothing for prospective trail towns to latch on to in their marketing.
  • Create an advisory committee for the trail town initiative. Start recruiting locally, creating partnerships and finding local champions who can drive the process forward. Make strong connections with trail stakeholders like friends-of trail groups and park directors, and invite them to sit on committees or attend meetings. Find diverse partners at the local, regional and state level, and determine what resources and capacity exists. Secure as much buy-in as possible early on and meet regularly so efforts don’t stall. For example, the Canal Towns Partnership on the C&O Canal Towpath has monthly trail-wide meetings with community representatives to strengthen regional connections.
  • Cultivate a broad base of volunteers. You will most likely rely on them to act as ambassadors, as well as for developing and undertaking activities and events.
  • Investigate how you can tap into existing planning or economic revitalization initiatives to avoid duplicating efforts.

Assessments & Research

Visitor, community and business assessments should be conducted to help you understand the current relationship between the trail and the town. The assessments, usually in the form of surveys, will help you understand where any service gaps are, and will guide you as you make an action plan to meet those needs. Furthermore, the surveys will help establish baseline metrics from which you can then track progress. When conducting an assessment, it’s important to take time to think through what information you want to collect beforehand.

  • Visitor assessments will help you understand your “customer.” Trail counts are useful in identifying numbers and types of users, as well as peak times of trail use. To gather qualitative and otherwise more detailed data, have volunteers issue written or digital surveys to trail users at strategic locations and times. Information collected from these surveys can include origins, destinations and activities of trail users, length of stay, desired amenities and dollars spent. See RTC’s Trail Impact Survey.
  • Community assessments are useful in helping to identify the assets available in your town. Start by putting yourself in the shoes of a trail user and taking a walking tour from trail to town. Be sure to take photos along the way. From this simple activity, you should easily be able to create a list of natural, historic and cultural assets and points of interest that can be plotted on a map. Additional insights can be gathered by hosting a meeting open to stakeholders like local chambers of commerce, bureaus of tourism and trail groups, as well as the general public. The Trail Town Guide is accompanied by an Assessment Workbook to help evaluate your community from the visitors’ point-of-view.  
  • Business assessments can help identify the services already available in towns along your trail and where there may be business opportunities. Create an inventory of existing businesses and services that includes data such as type, address and proximity to trailhead. Survey these businesses, too. Gather information on their peak times, what proportion of their business comes from the trail and what trail customers ask for or buy. Next, create a list of businesses and services that are needed. If possible, include identified sites for potential new businesses.

Connecting Town to Trail

The trailhead is the gateway into your community; a good one will inspire trail users to explore the town further and temporarily dissuade them from proceeding on the trail. Use signage to make information about the town available at the trailhead and improve wayfinding. Get quick wins by adding amenities such as water fountains, restrooms, bulletin boards and bike repair stations. For more information on signage and wayfinding, visit the Trail Building Toolbox.

Make physical improvements to enhance connectivity between the trail and the town. Install bike racks and other amenities outside stores. Add touches like public art displays and interpretive signage to accentuate the character of the town, highlight historic or cultural points of interest and establish a distinct sense of place.

Development

Help to expand existing businesses and recruit new ones to fill the gaps identified in the assessments. Work with community and economic development organizations to identify resources to help businesses adapt, including financing, business coaching and business networks.

Traditional funders may be reluctant to provide the kinds of capital small trailside towns and businesses need. In the case of the GAP, it helped that The Progress Fund, which runs the Trail Town Program®, is a Community Development Financial Institution. A CDFI is a non-traditional lender that promotes access to credit for underserved groups. As such, they are more likely to take risks than traditional banks. Read more about CDFIs below. 

Financing Your Program

Conducting assessments, creating and installing signage, helping to expand and recruit new businesses, and marketing a trail and its towns all take money. While there are plenty of federal, state, local and private grant opportunities to support various aspects of trail development, funding trail town activities might require you to tap into other sources of funding not typically available for trails. A mature and successful trail town program may even be able to serve local businesses as a financier themselves, such as by becoming a Community Development Financial Institution.

Grants

A notable federal grant opportunity for trail towns is the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which supports economic and community development in rural communities through competitive grants and loans. Its Rural Community Development Initiative grant program provides assistance to non-profits and communities for development of community facilities and economic development projects. The grant amounts range from $50,000 to $250,000 with a matching fund requirement.

Rural Business Development Grants provide funding ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 channeled through non-profits, local governments and other entities. Depending on the type of grant, the money can go towards initiatives like technical assistance (business training, product/service improvements, market research), jobs training, feasibility studies and business plans, and commercial remodeling.

At the state level, trail town initiatives stand to benefit from funding sources as diverse as development grants from the state’s Department of Natural Resources (or equivalent) to grants from statewide economic development corporations. In Michigan, communities along the Tip of the Thumb Heritage Water Trail secured funding to support a trail town master planning process through the Coastal Zone Management Program. Communities that are certified as trail towns in Kentucky receive funding assistance for signage from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

Business Network

The partnerships and relationship-building with local businesses can be extremely important when seeking funding. Use the research you have compiled from your needs analysis and action plan to demonstrate how investing in trail town activities would benefit businesses. For instance, suggest that a business sponsor the wayfinding signage from the trail to their store. Court companies to invest in trail town activities to build up goodwill and community support. Approach local businesses like restaurants, breweries and hotels to sponsor special trail-related events.

Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI)

Due to the unique circumstances of a trail town, which often includes small, rural start-ups or expanding businesses with seasonal cashflows, it can be difficult to get support from a traditional lender. CDFIs fill this lending gap by providing credit and financial services to groups traditionally overlooked by mainstream banks. They provide flexible financing schemes and tend to be more willing to engage in intensive relationship-building and technical assistance than conventional lenders. Even though CDFIs are mission-driven, they will still want to be assured of a borrower’s ability to repay the loan before investing.

A non-profit serving a target market such as small businesses can become a CDFI by applying for certification to the US Department of Treasury. Via its CDFI Fund, the Treasury Department provides both monetary awards and technical assistance to help build the capacity of CDFIs. See the website for eligibility criteria and application process details .   

You can find a list of registered CDFIs here.

Traditional Lenders

As mentioned above, conventional lenders like banks are often quite conservative when it comes to lending to the small trail-related businesses in rural communities—but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t explore this option at all. Creative solutions may be possible to meet the needs of both the bank(s) and local businesses.

For example, recognizing that in order to improve the trail experience, they also needed to invest in the amenities around it, trail advocates for West Virginia’s North Bend Rail Trail designed a loan program consisting of $100,000 pledges from five local banks. A Business Loan Committee reviewed loan applications for how well it met trail needs and make recommendations to the bankers. Borrowers could receive up to $15,000 with interest set at 1.5 percent below the prime rate. Beginning in 1995, the loan program made approximately 15 loans over a four year period, and defaulting did not emerge as a significant problem.

Marketing

Marketing is absolutely essential to the success of a trail town program. Use it to project a positive trail town image to residents, businesses, investors and visitors alike. Establish a brand, and develop a unified visual language for signage and promotional materials that can be used across the region. Digital marketing (websites, blogs), retail promotions and special events can all be used to bring attention to communities. For example, the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance holds an annual bicycle tour of trail towns in the fall, with involvement from local businesses and trail groups. The event is used as a fundraiser for the trails.

Amy Camp of Cycle Forward provided research and background information for portions of this summary.

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