Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and Fayette County, West Virginia…both are experiencing growth spurred by the outdoor economy. I participated in two unrelated tours last month, but quickly realized there were overlapping themes. The first tour was in Connellsville (Fayette County, PA). The second was in Fayetteville (Fayette County, WV). I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on each tour.
The Connellsville Tour
Who/What: Participants in DCNR’s Statewide Conservation Landscape Meeting
Focus: Learning about how the community is leveraging the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and benefiting from GAP trail use.
Details: The group, all involved in PA DCNR’s Conservation Landscapes program, had a half day tour that included a stop in Connellsville. The Pennsylvania Environmental Council asked to lead the Connellsville portion since I worked on a placemaking effort there last year. We started at the Stewart’s Crossing trailhead, walked a short stretch of trail, and visited with Mayor Greg Lincoln and Vern Ohler, City Clerk. We heard from the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy’s executive director, Bryan Perry, about the latest economic research on the GAP (here’s my 2021 post about that research). Finally, we stopped by the Comfort Inn to talk with the owners and management there.
I’ve worked in Connellsville since 2007 in varying capacities, and still Iearned a lot from the speakers. It was most encouraging hearing city leaders say there’s been a cultural shift in regard to the trail. People in Connellsville didn’t use to “get” the GAP. Now, there’s a hotel, two B&Bs, and an eatery called Kickstand Kitchen, right next to the longtime bike shop (and several others). People get it now…so much so that the city recently rebranded itself, incorporating an outdoorsy look and the tagline. For a city that was once skeptical of outdoor economy’s ability to deliver, a logo built around the outdoors says it all. They still have to publicly unveil it. Otherwise, I would share it here.
One other key takeaway for me is how much of the Comfort Inn’s success is due to trail traffic. The five-year-old riverfront building was completed in 2017 by another company, which filed for bankruptcy in its third year of business. The city’s only hotel property, it would have been easy enough for investors to conclude a hotel wouldn’t work in Connellsville (the sentiment being, “It’s already been tried.”). Instead, the Comfort Inn took the chance and is now operating a successful property. They say it’s one of their best properties. Having a hotel makes a big difference for Connellsville. I’m glad the Comfort Inn was able to turn that location around.
All You Really Need to Know (in Quotes):
“I don’t know where our town would be without this trail.”
– Connellsville Mayor Greg Lincoln
“Our business breathes by the GAP trail.”
– Comfort Inn General Manager, Cheryl Babbit
The Fayetteville Tour
Who/What: WV TRAIL conference participants who signed up for the Outdoor Economy of the New River Gorge tour
Focus: Learning how various businesses benefit from the local outdoor economy. Businesses visited included Arrowhead Bike Farm, Cathedral Cafe, Waterstone Outdoors, Lost Appalachia Trading Co., New River Bikes, and Bridge Brew Works.
Details: Led by New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, this tour allowed us to see firsthand a number of businesses that benefit from outdoor recreation. First, let me say it was refreshing to hear from an economic development organization that understands that the outdoor economy is a viable investment. Second, for a town of 2,800 people, Fayetteville has quite a few businesses that tie into outdoor recreation. There’s even a business, Bridge Bound Campers, that converts Ford Transits into camper vans (#vanlife)!
My biggest takeaway from the tour was seeing what a difference national park designations can make for communities. Previous labels such as “coolest small town” and “best adventure town” surely resulted in upticks in visitation and new residents. But the New River Gorge being designated a national park and preserve in 2020 seems to have been a real game changer.
Practically every business we met with reported increased business attributed to being located near America’s newest national park. And nearly all of them are now selling national park merch. A national park designation makes a big difference for gateway communities. If your region is aiming for park status, you’ll want to do the planning legwork to try to mitigate any negative impacts. That includes electing thoughtful local leaders who pursue community-centered tourism and economic development.
All You Really Need to Know:
Our final stop of the day was to Bridge Brew Works, next to the Wolf Creek Trails (mountain biking). The owner there said the national park designation has extended their peak season by a couple of months, with the first seasonal increases now in March and lasting through October. As already mentioned, they are not the only local business that’s experienced increased visitation.
Also, people on educational tours spend, too! Between the two tours, I spent about $75 on a screen print, take home beers, a hand-knit cap on consignment, a chocolate shop stop, and coffee shop treats. This was on time-bound tours without a ton of time built in for shopping. I’m guessing I could have spent more.
2022 National Trails Workshop Report Out
I attended the 2022 National Trails Workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico last week and co-presented a session on trail towns and gateway communities. My co-presenter, Ernesto Viveiros de Castro, is Brazilian biologist and national park manager who’s working on his Ph.D. at the University of Florida. He was also was the driving force behind creating the 2,600-mile Atlantic Forest Trail in Brazil. He spoke about his research on the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails. I spoke about trail towns and gateway communities and managed the workshop.
I also met a lot of great people whose work involves the National Trails System and I got to walk a short stretch of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near Grants, New Mexico. (The CDT is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the U.S.; as a board member of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, I was thrilled to be able to visit the trail.)
The trail walk was thanks to Corey Torivo, Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s New Mexico Representative. Afterward, Corey took two of us to visit Acoma Pueblo, the home and ancestral lands of the Acoma People. It was so special to have a member of the Acoma Tribe (Corey) share this sacred place with us. Much of the 2022 National Trails Workshop focused on Indigenous relationships with the land and how the trails community can be more inclusive. Having the chance to spend the day with Corey was timely, informative, and a total privilege for me.
Many thanks to the Partnership for the National Trails System for hosting the workshop and to workshop Chair, Teresa Martinez, for inviting me to speak!
All About Trail Towns Facebook Group
Have you joined the “All About Trail Towns” Facebook group? If you’re looking to connect with a larger trail town community, this is a great space for doing so. Please join us!
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