Canal Towns Program Plugs Businesses into the Enormous Potential of Trail Tourism

Posted 09/01/14 by Jake Lynch in America's Trails, Trail Use

Photo © Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

"When coal mining died and the railroads left, a lot of the towns really struggled. What the trail has done has brought that transportation corridor back to them. And it's actually helped to sustain businesses and revitalize the downtowns."

— Bill Atkinson, Maryland Department of Planning

In 1997, a group of foresighted Pennsylvanians formed The Progress Fund. Their mission was to support entrepreneurship in the economically depressed towns around the confluence of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia, and in doing so create living wage jobs in this rural market area.

Built in a restored church, Beans in the Belfry in downtown Brunswick, Md., was very popular with Sojourn cyclists looking for good coffee, beer and café meals.

Tourism in this picturesque and historical region was always going to be a central component of their strategy, and it soon became obvious that one of their most powerful assets was the 141-mile Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a nationally renowned rail-trail that connects many of the small communities that first inspired The Progress Fund's creation.

And so in 2007, The Progress Fund launched the Trail Towns program, designed specifically to help communities along the GAP convert their terrific location into sustainable economic activity.

"We could see the huge opportunities for rural businesses," says David Kahley, president, CEO and co-founder of The Progress Fund. "But, unfortunately, campgrounds and bike shops and ski-rental places in small towns are not a favorite of banks, so they were having trouble getting loans to get off the ground, to expand. But these are exactly the kinds of businesses that are needed if people are to recreate in the area."

Five years later, trail tourism along the GAP injects an estimated $50 million dollars a year in direct spending in these towns. And with business loans and assistance courtesy of Trail Towns, new businesses have opened, main streets are surviving the economic downturn, new jobs have been created and the population drain that accompanied the closing of primary industries and the railroad has been plugged.

Now, inspired by the great success of the Trail Towns program, the communities along the adjoining 184-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park, better known as the C&O Canal towpath, have created the Canal Towns program.

Alan and Rose outside the Desert Rose Cafe in Williamsport, Md. Rose has made sure her café is cyclist-friendly, as she says trail traffic provides a large portion of her business.

The goal is the same—to help local businesses capitalize on the natural advantage of their location next to a bustling trail. Connecting downtown Washington, D.C., with Cumberland, Md., and now on to Pittsburgh via the GAP, the C&O Canal towpath has become a destination trail for riders from all over the world. By creating effective signage, marketing to bikers and hikers, building bike-friendly main streets and offering the services particular to long-distance rides, these towns hope that at least some of these visitors will stop for a meal, stay the night and discover the attractions just off the trail.

The Canal Towns Partnership Board, which meets monthly, consists of representatives of each participating municipality – Cumberland, Hancock, Williamsport, Sharpsburg, Shepherdstown, Harpers Ferry, Brunswick and Point of Rocks. They help each other overcome regulatory hurdles, or capacity challenges. The strength of the group is its collaborative power, the combined experience of its members, and the ability to better lobby state and federal government agencies as a regional body.

In some of the smaller communities along the C&O, businesses are still grappling with the potential of trail tourism and how to make it pay dividends. On Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's recent Rail-Trail Sojourn, the 240-odd riders and support staff occasionally encountered stores that were closed for the day of our arrival, and others that hadn't put on extra staff to cope with the sudden boom.

But others were clearly switched on. Community representatives met the riders at the trailhead to answer questions on where they could get a meal, or how to get to the laundromat. Bed-and-breakfast owners sent shuttle vans to the Sojourn site to pick up guests, and bike stores welcomed hot and thirsty riders with free bike washes and beer.

"The community here has been downsizing over the last 30 years, 40 years, with the major industries leaving. So tourism is a key part of what we've got to do," says Cumberland resident Doug "Hutch" Hutchins. When the Sojourn passed through Cumberland in 2007, he and a friend were surprised to see there was no bike store near where the trail enters the city. So they started one. Five years later, Cumberland Trail Connection employs four full-time and 12 part-time staff, all locals.

Doug Hutchins (second from right), owner of Cumberland Trail Connection, was inspired to start the business when RTC's 2007 Sojourn passed through Cumberland.

"It's huge for the local economy," Hutch says, as more than a dozen Sojourners mill about the store, many of them buying t-shirts, souvenirs and spare tubes. "We really put the feedbag out there today. We've got a free bike wash outside, we're doing a $5 chain lube special here in the shop, and we've got free beer for the riders over 21."

He says that on a normal weekday like this one, he would have just two people working the store. This day, with the Sojourn in town, he had six. And business was booming, largely because of his proactive and creative promotion. A few yards away, local volunteers were offering free ice-cream to the Sojourners, and providing advice on where to get a steak, the best Mexican or Italian restaurant in town, and organizing shuttle buses to hotels and laundries.

Hutch is one of a handful of Cumberland business owners taking a active steps to boost bike tourism in the region. He often stops in at stores around town to let them know about upcoming tours and events, and attends the regular Allegheny County tourism meetings. Any local business looking to attract more trail tourism will get an at-cost discount from Cumberland Trail Connection for things like bike racks, flags and signage.

That the city of Cumberland has such an organized and proactive trail business community has a lot to do with Bill Atkinson, whose role with the Maryland Department of Planning involves directly engaging businesses in Allegheny County with how to roll out the red carpet for trail visitors, and ways to make them stay and spend while they are in town.

Atkinson says a lot can be revealed to business owners by putting themselves in the trail user's shoes and seeing what they see passing by on the trail.

The iconic Bill Schoenadel and his saloon/general store/diner in Little Orleans, Md., is one of the features of a journey along the C & O Canal.

"Most of the time we find there needs to be signage. People don't know how to get to the downtown area from the trail, or they don't know where the businesses are," he says. "We work with the businesses on their hours of operation, to make sure they're available when there are going to be bikers in town. And we also look at what sort of businesses are needed—if there isn't a bike shop, how do we get one in town? If there isn't an ice cream shop or a place to eat, how do we get that? And we work with the local accommodations to put packages together so it's more convenient for bikers to stay overnight."

Having watched closely while the Trail Towns program made such visible economic gains for Pennsylvania and western Maryland, Atkinson is aware of what stands to be gained by making businesses along the C&O more trail savvy.

"From the businesses we're hearing that, on average, 14 percent of their business is coming from the trail," he says. "In a small community, when you can add just a little bit of income to these businesses it makes a huge difference."

And the word 'huge' is no overstatement. The most recent survey of the economic impact of trail use on towns along the GAP, conducted by Frostburg State University in 2010/11, recorded $50 million in direct spending from trail users in the communities between Pittsburgh and Cumberland.

Encouraging people to stay overnight has the greatest potential for visitor spending; getting tourists off the bike and perusing local shops for art and souvenirs, buying groceries. The average expenditure for overnight stay in 2010/11 was $114, up from $98 in 2008/08. Twenty-eight percent of trail users are spending the night, and 82 percent of those users spending more than one night.

These numbers are making entrepreneurs along the C&O very optimistic about their future as the next generation of trail towns.

"It's not just B&B's anymore, it's not just bike shops," Atkinson says. "This is having an impact on the entire community."

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