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Trail Town Head: Communities Must Embrace Bike Visitors to Gain Full Benefit

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
December 06, 2017
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

(Above: Elected officials led by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald enter McKeesport during a tour of the Great Allegheny Passage in September. Tube City Almanac file photo)

A biking-hiking trail like the Great Allegheny Passage is an economic development opportunity for the communities it passes through --- but only if those towns capitalize on it.

And, said David Kahley, president and CEO of the Greensburg-based Progress Fund, McKeesport hasn't exploited the Great Allegheny Passage to its fullest potential.

The Progress Fund runs the Trail Town Program, which over the past 10 years has invested in 65 small businesses employing 250 people along the "GAP" trail between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, Md.

"McKeesport has been problematic for us," Kahley said during an interview for Tube City Community Media's radio show, "Two Rivers, 30 Minutes," which airs Sundays on WEDO (810), WZUM (1550) and Internet station WMCK.FM, and is also available as a free podcast.

"It is situated in a perfect place --- you could have a lot of people riding to McKeesport for fun from Pittsburgh and all of the neigborhing communties and it could be a perfect day destination," Kahley said. "You ride in, have lunch, have breakfast, and ride back home again. I've seen it work all over the country."

But the bike trail bypasses the central business district Downtown and skirts the edge of Christy Park, blunting its economic development impact for the city.

"You know what (highway) bypasses do to small towns?" Kahley said. "They take all of the eyeballs and put them away. It's great for transportation, but it's not necessarily great for Main Street."

(Above: In McKeesport, the Great Allegheny Passage bypasses the Downtown business district. David Kahley of The Progress Fund said that decision made years ago has blunted the trail's economic impact on the city. Tube City Almanac photo)

Although there have been proposals to run the bike trail directly down Fifth Avenue, past McKeesport officials made the decision to keep the trail along the rivers and railroad tracks.

Kahley said that was a mistake.

"As a result, (McKeesport has not) benefited from what could have been a great Lawrenceville-type of redevelopment, where it became a cool place to visit," Kahley said. "You've got to embrace the trail and you've got to embrace the opportunity."

The Progress Fund has collected its experience of funding economic development along the trail --- including successful development strategies used in West Newton and other nearby towns --- into a free book called "The Trail Town Guide: Revitalizing Rural Communities With Bike Trail Tourism."

The book is available by going to the Progress Fund's Trail Town website at www.trailtowns.org/Guide/.

Kahley said the book was created because other cities around the United States wanted to learn from the experiences along the Great Allegheny Passage.

"It's basically what we've tried and what we've learned from it," he saud.

Founded in 1997, the Progress Fund began as a not-for-profit that makes small business development loans in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.

Over the past 20 years, the fund has made more than 500 loans ranging from $100,000 up to $1 million to start-up companies, Kahley said.

It became interested in the potential of the Great Allegheny Passage before the trail was even complete, when entrepreneurs began asking the Progress Fund for financing to acquire old buildings and rehabilitate them, he said.

"There were beginning to be sections that were long --- up to 80 miles --- and people were coming to view it as a destination," Kahley said. "We started gettng calls from these potential business owners, saying, 'hey, we want to open a bed and breakfast, we want to open a bike shop.'"

The Progress Fund now estimates that the trail generates $50 million per year in economic activity, Kahley said.

According to a study published earlier this year by Andrew Herr, an associate professor of economics at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, between 1 million and 1.1 million people used the trail in 2016.

Outside of the city of Pittsburgh, the heaviest-used segments are in West Newton, where nearly 59,000 people used the trail, and near the Rankin Bridge, where more than 55,000 people passed in 2016.

West Newton is one of the trail's success stories, because it focused attention on the area directly adjacent to the trail, Kahley said.

The Great Allegheny Passage is largely built along the abandoned right-of-way of the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. Kahley pointed out that railroads often bypassed the most congested areas of towns.

That was also the case in West Newton, where the old commercial heart of town is on the east side of the Youghiogheny River, but the P&LE tracks were on the west side of the river.

"You've got to physically make sure you connect the trail to where the commerce is," Kahley said, adding that West Newton officials, the non-profit group Downtown West Newton Inc., and business owners all made it "their job to get people across the river into the town."

(Above: The former West Newton train station is now open year-round to serve riders and hikers on the Great Allegheny Passage. Photo courtesy Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau.)

As a result of their efforts, Kahley said, the trail has become "the economic generator for West Newton. They fixed up their buildings, they started hiring people, and money started flowing through their cash registers."

"West Newton was sort of a laboratory for the Trail Town Program," Kahley said. "It was one of the first places where we started to hear from people who wanted to start a small business and needed a bank loan. Instead, they got a loan from us."

McKeesport joined the Trail Town Program in 2013, and volunteers from the McKeesport Trail Commission have worked with the Progress Fund to improve signage and amenities along the section of the Great Allegheny Passage that passes through the city.

Kahley said he hopes the Trail Town Guide helps other communities maximize the economic impact of biking and hiking trails.

He acknowledged that a lot of people in Western Pennsylvania are "never going to get onto a bike again."

"But the reality is there is a large enough percentage of people --- young, active, healthy people, in the prime of the lives --- who are spending money, who are willing to stop in your town and have food," Kahley said, "and those kind of people can turn around a small business that's struggling and make it successful."

And if there's one lesson he can impart, he said, it's that trail users have asked communities time and time again for two very specific things.

"I hate to say it, but they want better signage and they want to know where the 'potties' are," Kahley said. "It's why Sheetz has so many people stopping there. Why build (restrooms)? Why not have restaurants and coffee shops instead that are inviting to people and offer what they need?"

Originally published December 06, 2017.

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