How bike tourism is changing small towns on the Great Allegheny Passage


How bike tourism is changing small towns on the Great Allegheny Passage


The Salisbury Viaduct crosses the Casselman River in southwest Pennsylvania on the Great Allegheny Passage.

Trains, paper mills, and radiator manufacturing. For more than 100 years beginning in the mid-1800s, these were the industries that shaped the lives of residents in West Newton, a small town an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

What was once known as a pioneer town in Pennsylvania during the early history of the U.S. transformed into a hotbed of industry. Eventually, like many towns in the western part of the state that shed industrial pasts, West Newton’s mills and factories closed down during the final decades of the 20th century.

Those losses are part of an economic reality that is still trying many post-industrial towns in the U.S. So how is it that a bed and breakfast is currently up for sale in West Newton with a $900,000 price tag?

West Newton's Bright Morning bed and breakfast. | Credit: Zillow

On Jefferson Court in West Newton is a short stretch of buildings, adjacent to the Youghiogheny River and the old P&LE Railroad, the latter which is being reborn. The railroad is enjoying a second life as a connecting stretch of the Great Allegheny Passage, one of America’s premier bike trails, which is bringing riders and commerce to former industrial towns, and helping to boost the value of local businesses along the way.

A winding stretch of smooth, packed limestone, the Great Allegheny Passage (often abbreviated as the GAP trail) extends about 150 miles from Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to Cumberland in Maryland before connecting with the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, another well-known trail more commonly known as the C&O, which leads to Washington, D.C.

Yet the GAP trail began as a series of small segments: Since 1978, mile after mile of small bike trails were constructed by a string of rural towns. Originally, none of them were connected, but over time, the idea of fastening those parts into one contiguous trail formed the basis of a broader vision for an industrial and mining region thirsting for a commercial boost, different from its industrial past. 

“All of the local trail builders got together and were inspired by our founder, Linda Box,” says Bryan Perry, executive director of the nonprofit Allegheny Trail Alliance, which promotes ridership on the trail and is based in Homestead, Pa. “If we connected all these little small segments in and out of these towns along the river valleys, then we really would have something that could drive economic development.”

The GAP's long-term playbook followed a basic formula: Riders taking day-long or longer trips will undoubtedly want places to stop along the way, for food, rest, day-tripping and the more-than-likely bicycle repair. It’s a model practiced by some of the most ambitious bike trails across the U.S. Off the mountain bike trails of Bentonville in Arkansas — some of the land for which was donated by the deep-pocketed Walton Family of Walmart acclaim — sit bed and breakfasts, restaurants, microbreweries, and art galleries. In Missouri there’s the Katy Trail, which connects roughly 36 different towns along its 237.7-mile route; an economic impact study conducted this decade found that riders along the trail spend about $18.5 million per year. 

But it’s the Great Allegheny Passage that, arguably, sets the standard for using trail-riding as a means for economic tourism and the subsequent financial impact that bike tourism can have. While the final segment of the GAP wasn’t connected until 2013, the 10 trail towns situated alongside the route began noticing a boost as early as the mid-2000s.

The Great Allegheny Passage trail map | Credit: Allegheny Trail Alliance

“As more of the sections got connected, you got riders staying a little longer, and then they were spending a little more money,” says Eric Martin, owner and operator of Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle, a popular stopover town along the GAP. “People, and not just those of us in the business community or committed to the trail from the get-go, started saying this trail is going to actually have an economic footprint.”

For decades, Martin's family business had been whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny. But in the late 1980s, a bike trail connecting Ohiopyle and Confluence, a town 11 miles to the east, opened up. It eventually became part of the GAP trail. Today, Wilderness Voyageurs runs multi-day bike tours along the trail and in 17 states around the country.

Numbers collected in various surveys and studies bear out the impact that the trail has had on local business. In 2014, one year after the entire extent of the trail was completed, one study noted a jump in the amount of businesses with plans to expand: Of 45 trail businesses surveyed, 18 said they planned to add offerings, while the year before, only 30% of businesses planned to do so as a result of the trail. A subsequent report in 2015 found that for two-thirds of businesses in towns along the GAP, the trail itself motivated their decisions to expand. And average overnight spending of riders along the GAP increased by 27% compared to 2008, from $98 to $124.

In less than a decade, a clear pattern has emerged: as more riders take to the GAP, more money is spent at local shops, which in turn motivates owners to grow their businesses.

“People want adventure, but they also want to be fed and cleaned up at the end of the day,” says David Kahley, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh-based Progress Fund, a community development financial institution that funds businesses along the GAP.

“What the trail has become is this long economic corridor of people having adventure on the trail, and then needing a place or wanting a place to break, get cleaned up, and check out a new location.”

“I’m not saying it replaces those earlier industries,” Kahley says. “But it’s really turned the tide in these towns.”

Lodging, restaurants, and bike shops have been the high-growth areas in the GAP trail towns. In Confluence, there used to be just one restaurant and five places to stay in 2005. As of this year, there are now four restaurants and close to 20 places to stay just off the trail.

“A 150-mile trail requires two overnights,” says Perry. “It’s a bucket-list weekend: You leave on Friday and show up on Sunday in Pittsburgh or Cumberland.”

An example of the new commercial spirit along the GAP that Kahley often cites is Bright Morning—the bed and breakfast mentioned earlier that’s currently up for sale in West Newton—which is looking for new owners to take over. What started out as one room inside a home in West Newton expanded into four buildings with 13 guest rooms. It’s one of Kahley’s favorite examples partly because Bright Morning is a trail business that also received funding from Kahley’s nonprofit bank to help with construction and expansion costs. The fourth building on the property is one the Progress Fund purchased and renovated on the business’s behalf. 

The new businesses are certainly a far cry from the industrial past that unfolds before riders’ eyes along the Great Allegheny Passage. Coal mines, steel mills and the viaducts and bridges of the old railroads are part of the sights. 

But the new economy of the trail towns that are taking shape, even to this day, are a clear demonstration of how a bike trail can be an agent of economic change.

“I’m not saying it replaces those earlier industries,” Kahley says. “But it’s really turned the tide in these towns.”

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist that has written for Popular Science, Wired, The Washington Post Magazine, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Elemental, MIT Technology Review, Outside, and others. Subscribe to his newsletter here.

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