A seldom discussed element of Smart Growth involves trail corridors and the ability of communities large and small to create profitable businesses, home-grown employment opportunities and a renewed sense of place along abandoned rail lines and other newly developed multi-purpose trail corridors.

David and Jamie on GAP Trail

An exceptional example of rural recreational tourism-related Smart Growth can be found in the communities along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Allegany County, Maryland.

Last month, Jamie Bridges of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council and I bicycled 215 miles on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) Trail and the C&O Canal. It was a superb and highly memorable bicycle outing to check out the route for a possible future Maryland Department of Planning bicycle ride from Pittsburgh to Cumberland on the scenic and historic GAP Trail.  What was to be unique cycling adventure also turned into a lesson on the economic benefits of long-distance trail facilities on municipalities and boroughs along an extraordinary rail to trail link between Pittsburgh and Cumberland.

We started out with lights on our bikes before dawn on Friday, August 19thin the suburbs of Pittsburgh. We rode 60 miles to Ohiopyle, PA arriving a half-hour early for an extraordinary white water rafting trip on the Lower Youghiogheny River. We learned at the raft outfitters that cyclists are quite often riding along the GAP Trail to Ohiopyle to join rafting trips through the Class 3 & 4 rapids of the mighty Lower Yough. After our five-hour rafting trip, we opted to stay at a guest house in Ohiopyle for the night and enjoy the local restaurants.

Whitewater rafting on the Lower Yough

On Saturday, we continued our ride at a more leisurely pace stopping at the communities of Confluence, Rockwood and Meyersdale to check out the coffee shops, bakeries, bicycle stores, restaurants and the many bed and breakfast operations that have sprung up near the GAP Trail. These businesses opened as a result of the trail. They employ local residents in communities where high unemployment was the norm in the years prior to the opening of the GAP Trail. Municipalities along the GAP Trail clearly have invested a lot in bridges, streetscape improvements, campgrounds, restroom facilities, signage and other public investments to draw GAP Trail users onto their streets. It is also clear that local property owners have invested substantial sums in beautification of their buildings to attract a flow of trail users to their businesses and B&B’s.

Saturday, Jamie and I rode through the communities and over the Eastern Continental Divide and through the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel, eventually down to Frostburg for a stop at the Trail Inn for a late lunch. The Trail Inn represents a significant investment by a local entrepreneur to provide a restaurant, rooms and a campground for users of the GAP Trail.

After Frostburg, we rode downhill to Canal Square in Cumberland. This being a Saturday, quite a lot was going on in Downtown Cumberland. After checking in to our accommodations, we had a nice meal and listened to excellent music in an outside venue on Cumberland’s Downtown Mall. Following that, we walked over to Canal Place to hear additional music and see events associated with an arts festival there. We also paid a visit to the excellent Queen City Creamery, which was really packed by ice cream lovers on Saturday evening.  This was quite a change from 20 years ago when, it seemed, most Cumberland businesses closed their doors early on a Saturday.

Riding through the Paw Paw Tunnel

Sunday morning, we woke before dawn, rode to Canal Place with our lights and started down the C&O Canal towards Hancock, MD. We stopped for a nice breakfast at the Oldtown Kitchen, located in the former Oldtown School. Then we rode through the Paw Paw Tunnel and onto Hancock to refill water bottles. We were impressed by the sheer number of users of the Western Maryland Rail Trail that runs through Hancock. The local bicycle shop near the trail had a constant flow of trail riders coming through its door and nearby restaurants had bicycles stacked near their front doors. The sound of cash registers catering to trail users filled the air in many local businesses in Hancock. After a stop in Hancock, Jamie and I then rode onto Williamsport, MD, near Hagerstown, where a soon-to-be-upon-us thunderstorm with the threat of quite large hail ended our ride for the day.

Some observations: The GAP Trail has one of the best riding surfaces of any non-paved trail I have ever cycled. The route from Pittsburgh to the Big Savage Mountain Tunnel has very little grade and is a preferred riding option over the route up from Cumberland with its 20-plus mile hill climb from the ride start at Canal Place to the Eastern Continental Divide.

One really needs to come out firsthand to see the large number of businesses that have opened recently to cater to trail users. From Connellsville to Confluence, PA, Meyersdale, PA to Frostburg, MD, the GAP Trail is an amazing recreational tourism success story. Many B&B’s, bicycle stores, coffee shops, bakeries, delis and restaurants are now open all along the route catering to GAP trail users. The Trail Inn at Frostburg is busy almost all hours of the day, primarily from users of the GAP trail. The great staff at the Trail Inn makes a fine sandwich and they provide nicely furnished rooms and a campground for those inclined to stay overnight near the Maryland portion of the GAP Trail. These trails and their nearby towns offer the most compelling example I have yet seen of the impact that trails facilities and recreational tourism can have on economic development in municipalities.

This is rural “Smart Growth” at its core and many lessons can be learned from the economic impact that the relatively small monetary investments to construct the GAP Trail and the Western Maryland Rail Trail are having on rural communities and small cities in Maryland and Pennsylvania.  The latest economic estimates show an infusion of $40 million per year resulting from completion of the GAP Trail alone.

These trails offer clear proof that if we “build it they will come.”