Thanks to Towpath, Cycling Culture Thriving in Williamsport, Md.

Posted 06/20/12 by Jake Lynch in America's Trails

Photo © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy/Jake Lynch

RTC's Jake Lynch is out on the 2012Greenway 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. 

The first person I met in Williamsport, Md., was the town clerk, Donnie Stotelmyer. He was on the phone with the local fire chief, finding a way to hook us up with water for a giant shower truck and 250 hot and thirsty riders. A few moments earlier he had opened the restrooms in town hall for us to use, organized a discount rate at the swimming pool, and was generally bending over backwards to accommodate the droves of arriving riders on the 2012 Greenway Sojourn.

"There's a bike shop down the road--he'll get you whatever you need," Stotelmyer said. "There's an ice cream place on the corner there, and the Desert Rose Cafeon the other corner has free wi-fi and is open 'til six. You need anything else, you just let me know."

It's great to see such encouragement of trail tourism coming from the municipal level. The city's willingness and ability to make it easy for large groups like the Sojourn to camp close to town is often the difference between a night's stay and a bypass.

But according to Scotty at River City Cycles on the main street, trail events like the Sojourn have a minimal long-term impact on his business. At first, this insight left me a little deflated.

"Ninety-nine percent of my customers are locals," he said. So, there must be a pretty strong biking community here in the area, then?

Turns out there is, much of it sustained and encouraged by the close proximity of trails like the C&O Canal towpath. So here we have trails boosting the local economy not as a tourist amenity but a facilitator of local activity.

And it's growing. Scotty's business was up 26 percent in the last financial year, and that was up on a record year the one previous. He says a lot of people are choosing to vacation closer to home, given the nation's economic woes. He also attributes an increase in biking to a growing awareness of the obesity crisis, and people's efforts to get fit.

Luckily for the people of Williamsport, they have somewhere terrific to ride, walk or run.

I went a few doors down the main street to the wonderful Desert Rose Cafe to have a cold drink and plug in for some wi-fi to write this post. Everyone in there had heard about the Sojourn coming to town and was eager for some trail traffic.

"The trail is the best tourism we have," said the owner, Rose. She had been following the development of a rail-trail project nearby and was very aware of the benefit of destination tours and trail loops.

But her business is a great example of the challenges we still face in making the Sojourn, and group rides like it, equal solid business for the local stores--the Desert Rose Cafe is a few blocks from the trail, there are no signs near the trail pointing to it, and the Sojourn is fully catered anyway so many riders are unwilling to pay for another meal.

But, like Scotty, she said a solid local community of bikers and hikers, many of whom want healthful food options, sustains the business year-round. And Rose understands that building a business into a visitor attraction sometimes takes time. When these riders, or their friends, return to the area for another trip, they'll remember the place, word will get around. The trails community supports and patronizes its favorite places. And you won't find it on the menu, but if you're looking for some local history info, in this area famed for the battles of the Civil War, visit the Desert Rose and ask for Alan. You'll get a unique local history lesson along with your great coffee and sandwich--exactly the sort of local experience that makes the Desert Rose, and Williamsport, a trail destination with a great future.

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