SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Sullivan Renaissance and the Sullivan O&W Rail Trail Alliance showed the full potential of rail trail-based recreation with a Trail Town conference, held this past …
SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — Sullivan Renaissance and the Sullivan O&W Rail Trail Alliance showed the full potential of rail trail-based recreation with a Trail Town conference, held this past Thursday and Friday in Hurleyville and Wurtsboro.
The Thursday evening kickoff and mixer was held at the Michael Ritchie Big Barn at the Center for Discovery. It featured food and drink from several local providers.
About 50 people wove through tables set up with food, lists of volunteer opportunities for Sullivan Renaissance and Sullivan 180, and information on the current and projected mapping of the rail trails. “Volunteers have been active, building, clearing and enhancing our trails for decades. We are at a point now where it is all coming together for everyone to enjoy,” says Denise Frangipane, executive director for Sullivan Renaissance. Among the goals: to improve the county’s health rankings and increase economic development.
Keynote speaker David Kahley, president and CEO of the nonprofit Progress Fund, shared the success story of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP), a 150-mile-long rail trail based mostly in Pennsylvania, to illuminate the benefit a long, united trail can bring to the towns located along it.
Kahley, who has 38 years of experience in economic development, said that many businesses were struggling in getting loans from banks for projects like building a bike shop or a bed and breakfast along the rail trail, so Kahley began to loan them money through the Progress Fund. The investments became very successful, he added.
He said that by bringing healthy economic investments into towns, people can choose to live and stay in the places they want to stay. He learned from the towns and then took that to communities hoping to make the most of their rail trails.
“That’s what I’m all about,” he said.
During his presentation, Kahley asked members of the audience if they had been to the GAP. One woman said she had biked it, and when asked the standout parts of her experience, she mentioned several towns she biked through that resonated with her.
This is part of the benefit of the rail trail, he said. “Whereas the Park Service aims to preserve land and the wild, the rail trail can bring money into towns, and generate economic revenue in small communities.”
When people began using the GAP, they would bike miles into a town and then ask where they could get a bite to eat, where they could stay, or what things there were to do in the town.
Thus the importance of appropriate scaling, he said; the rail trail brings in visitor money, but the visitors also need establishments to spend their money in. He showed examples of successful breweries, bike shops, yurts and other lodgings that were built in the trail towns.
The Progress Fund has made 624 loans to 382 businesses, loaning $89.2 million and creating 5,641 jobs.
The longest paved section of rail trail in Sullivan County right now is 3.5 miles long. The hope of the alliance and Sullivan Renaissance is that by connecting the varying existing sections, the trail will be able to stretch 50 consecutive miles, from Livingston Manor to the Sullivan-Orange county line in Mamakating. This could draw in more visitors for the trail, but would also serve as an expanded recreational opportunity for locals. It also opens up the possibility of connecting spur trails (out-and-back trails which branch out from the main one) through other towns.
The current project is to build a bridge across the Neversink River, linking the one-mile gap between the Hurleyville and Woodridge/Mountain Dale sections of the trail, thereby creating the longest section of trail yet. It is anticipated to be completed by mid-2023.
One of the most important things the public can do to support the trail connections is to write letters, noted the alliance; those letters are critical in securing grant funding and there was a sample letter available.
With a united effort, residents and visitors may one day be able to walk or bike the entire 50 miles of trail, enjoying nature and each unique New York hamlet along the way.
Key tips to success
Any derelict buildings near trailheads should be the first to be invested in and renovated, since that is the first peek at the town visitors will have, Kahley said.
Launch community connection projects, such as installing bike rails and public art along the trail towns. Kahley also homed in on the importance of offering coaching support for businesses when they open and providing resources for trail maintenance.
The GAP saw one million visitors annually from 2016-2019, with 7.6 percent of them staying overnight in towns, and an annual $74.7 million spent annually at businesses by trail users. That number does not include the additional income to the community from providing labor and job opportunities along the trail.
Kahley said some business owners were skeptical about the bicyclists, but changed their mind when the visitors walked into their restaurants and said, “‘Hi, I want to buy your pierogies!’... which we sell in Pennsylvania,” he quipped, highlighting a popular food of the state.
About the Progress Fund
The fund began in 2001. A lack of services for bicyclists coming through the towns had been identified. By 2012 the fund had developed a real estate initiative and saw huge success by 2016, he said. At that point Kahley realized the towns along that trail shared more wisdom than he could at conferences, so he took his learning to the road with the Trail Town program, he said. Learn more at progressfund.org.
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