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Susquehanna Life

Economic Development: The Logic of Funding Asset-Based Initiatives

Jun 03, 2016 06:18PM ● By Melanie Heisinger
In 1998, Gov. Tom Ridge formed the Pennsylvania Greenways Partnership Commission to build trails in Pennsylvania. Nearly 20 years later, attracting funding for recreation-minded outdoor projects remains a challenge, even as studies reveal their economic-boosting attributes. 

By Erica L. Shames


In 2001, the charter for the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership was signed, the result of Gov. Tom Ridge’s intention to create greenways and trails as part of his administration’s Growing Greener initiative. “There’s a perception that outdoor recreation initiatives are spawned by tree-huggers,” notes Jerry Walls, board president, Susquehanna Greenway Partnership (SGP). “Gov. Ridge, a bicyclist and a Republican, was pushing this because he saw economic value in the concept.”

Attracting funding for like-minded ideas, however, has proven a challenge in an environment more focused on reinventing the character of Central Pennsylvania than embracing its innate one.


The Story So Far

Today, the SGP is engaged in many aspects of greenway development, including connecting people with trails, waterways, open spaces, recreational facilities, environmental education opportunities and community resources, as well as river town revitalization and pursuing funding sources.

“When we go into a river town,” explained SGP executive director Trish Carothers, “we’re looking for those people who are champions in the municipal government and key leaders in the community who understand the importance of the river to their community and want to create stronger connections to the river.”

At public input meetings convened by the SGP, questions are asked: What parks and trails do you want? How do you want to green your community? What are your heritage resources? Answers have spawned ideas to enhance quality of life and economic vitality. One such plan centers around the Ridge Trail in Lycoming and Clinton counties.


Ridge Trail

The initial idea behind the Ridge Trail, according to Brian Auman, who wrote the plan to develop it, was to revitalize a neighborhood in the Sylvan Dell area in Williamsport.

“The goal was to connect that neighborhood with the [Williamsport] river walk,” said Auman, president of BSA/LA landscape architecture firm. “You could live in a new house on a wooded lot, and be a 10-minute bike ride from downtown Williamsport.”

Jim Dunn, Armstrong Township Supervisor, in a move to enhance outdoor connections, utilized a $5000 SGP mini grant to fund the Sylvan Dell neighborhood plan.

“I look at my community and all the assets,” he said. “It’s the birds, the bees, the flowers and trees. That’s our identity. We don’t have to invent it. We need to wrap our arms around who we are.”

A second goal was to connect the Williamsport river walk to the adjacent ridge. From Muncy to Lock Haven, a 50-mile trail corridor was identified.  

“We mapped the state forest and state parks land and realized it’s a contiguous corridor that includes the Tiadoughton, Bald Eagle and Rothrock state forest systems,” said Auman. “This trail feature will attract bikers, hikers and trail runners.” 

The Ridge Trail will serve as the spine of a trail network to connect to a diverse range of experiences, even allowing for four-season activities including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and fat tire biking and the economic activity accompanying them: bike shops, outfitters, B&Bs, shuttle services, guides and interpretive services, and heritage-centered activities centered around the region’s lumber and river town history. 

“The Ridge Trail will be an extension of the popular Pine Creek Rail Trail,” notes Auman. “You come down from Wellsboro into Jersey Shore, then connect to Lock Haven – a total of 80 miles. Then you’d have an additional 50 miles with the Ridge Trail. Now we have 130 miles of trail to attract multi-day trips and bike-packing—the things that will fill hotel rooms.”


Taking Notice

Already activity is ramping up in and around these trails. Last year, the Outdoor Experience Organization (OEO) moved its Iron Cross Race from Michaux State Forest in Fayetteville to Williamsport. OEO, whose goals are to create and enhance multi-use trail networks and opportunities throughout Pennsylvania, and leverage these trails to contribute to community wellness and economic development, identified the Ridge Trail and Tiadaghton State Forest, which it traverses, as ideal mountain biking territory. OEO’s Singletrack Summer Camp and Trans-Sylvania Epic Mountain Bike Race are held in late May at the Seven Mountains Scout Camp, in Centre County.  

“This event attracts participants from the UK, Spain, Panama, Columbia, Brazil, Canada and the U.S.,” explained Mike Kuhn, president, OEO, and director, PA Interscholastic Cycling League. “Most major cycling media from across North America have attended, and their coverage has generated tens of millions of impressions nationally and internationally over seven years.”

The Susquehanna Valley Velo Club (SVVC), a local chapter of the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), which hosts the Iron Cross Race Mike Kuhn directs, dispatched work parties, starting in spring of 2014, to clear out a 12.5 mile section of trail in the mountains just south of Williamsport.  An additional 1.5 miles of trail have been established, and permanent trail signs were installed. The club works with the Williamsport Water Authority to maintain trails within its borders and started maintaining trails in The Gaps, the Tiadaghton State Forest area between PA-44 and I-80.

“The club uses the trails to host public group rides and challenge events like the Iron Cross Race,” said Joseph Tavani, SVVC/IMBA chapter chair. Mike Kuhn’s goal is to bring visitors to the area to explore great cycling and be a catalyst to develop more. The area is also regularly used by hikers, trail runners and cross-country skiers.”

SVVC/IMBA has a long-term plan submitted to PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) to approve more than nine miles of new trail and more events are in the works, including its Keystone Gravel event in September. “The majority of trails are in the Gaps area, which links to the south of Van Dyke Road, part of the Ridge Trail system. These new trails will make a mountain bike race more feasible in the future.”


Big Picture: Wealth

More and more documentation illustrates the benefits of making these natural connections in communities nationwide. According to a fall 2006 publication by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, the active outdoor recreation economy contributes $730 billion annually to the U. S. economy. And active outdoor recreation supports nearly 6.5 million jobs across the U. S.

Vermont’s Kingdom Trails, a system linking 60 contiguous landowner properties, contributed close to $5 million to the local economy in 2012 in a corner of the state that is devoid of other economic drivers, and the average wage is just over $30,000.

“By 2014, the number of mountain biking visitors had climbed to 69,000, which contributed close to $7 million in economic impact, and the numbers are climbing,” referenced Kuhn.


Big Picture: Health

The healthcare industry is assessing the importance of an active, health lifestyle to cope with the growing cost of obesity, heart problems, depression, anxiety and a wide range of infirmities. To seek funding partners, the SGP has embarked on a strategy to engage healthcare providers and insurance carriers. The SGP is working with Susquehanna Health on several initiatives including achieving River Town status for Williamsport. 

“Susquehanna Health and the Susquehanna Greenway Partnership share the same goals: to care for the health of the communities we serve,” noted Bob Kane, vice president, Susquehanna Health. “Clearly, health and wellness play essential roles in the work we do every day. The SGP is working with us to connect the bike trail to the Williamsport Regional Medical Center and Divine Providence Hospital.”

In looking at growing communities across the country, the focus is on attracting millennials to balance the retiring aging baby boomer population.  

“The communities attracting millennials—Boulder, Austin, Portland and Asheville, for example—have quality of life,” said Dunn. “You can bike and access nature, trees and water. We have that; we can compete like that.”


Where are we headed?

Given the potential for these positive outcomes—economic development, increased quality of life and improved health and wellness—where does the Ridge Trail project stand? Meetings with Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and municipal leaders generated “very positive support for the Ridge Trail,” according to Auman, but the plan has yet to attract the necessary funding to move forward. 

 “You could do all 130 miles [of the trail] today, but it’s not the experience anyone would look for in a marketable product,” laments Auman. “Our challenge is with municipal officials and land managers at the state forest level; they’re still locked into the hook and bullet.

 “The problem goes back to perspective, added Auman. “If you’ve always been here, you take these assets for granted,” he said. “You’re not going to market or promote this, or see it as something to hang your hat on for economic development. Yet people from the outside embrace it.”


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