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Armstrong tourism fueled by river fun

| Wednesday, March 19, 2014, 12:09 p.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times
Neill and Evelyn Andritz, owners of The Rivers Edge Canoe and Kayak, move a stand-up paddle board outside their business near Leechburg on Friday, March 14, 2014.

Neill Andritz is expecting this summer to be his busiest season ever at the River's Edge Canoe and Kayak in Gilpin.

Andritz, whose shop sits along the Kiski River, said more and more people have been flocking to the rivers across Armstrong County.

Last year, his shop had about 3,500 customers, and he's expecting about 4,000 to come to either rent or purchase kayaks or canoes. He claims visitors from 42 different states.

“Every year, we've been experiencing a nice jump in visitors,” Andritz said. “It's a big help for the whole area because the people who come here are staying here, using our trails and spending money in the area.”

Tourism is Armstrong County's top industry and brings $89.8 million into the local economy, according to Kevin Andrews, director of the Armstroung County Tourist Bureau.

He said $25.1 million of the county's tourism is from outdoor recreation.

“A lot of people are cooped up at work all day, so when they're off, they want to be disconnected from their jobs and technology and just experience things outside,” Andrews said. “The rivers are a large part of our tourism industry because people really enjoy getting out to go kayaking, canoeing and fishing.”

The Kiski River is part of the Kiskiminetas-Conemaugh Water Trail, an 86-mile river trail flowing through Armstrong, Indiana, Westmoreland and Cambria counties. Last year, the National Park Service designated the trail as a National Recreational Trail.

The trail features 23 miles flowing through Armstrong County, which features stops in Apollo, Vandergrift, Leechburg and Freeport, according to Laura Hawkins, Greenway Coordinator for Allegheny Ridge Corporation, which focuses on economic development, historic preservation, outdoor recreation and environmental conservation throughout central and western Pennsylvania.

She said during the spring and summer, it's not hard to spot lots of people enjoying the Kiski and Allegheny rivers.

“It's grown so much, particularly in Armstrong County, because there are so many interesting river towns and patches of wilderness,” Hawkins said. “It's a nice mix of being close enough to have the convenience of little towns, but you're also able to feel like you're out in the middle of nowhere at the same time.”

Hawkins attributes the increased river traffic to decades of work fighting pollution. About 30 years ago, most people avoided rivers in the region, especially the Kiski River, because of an orange discoloration caused by acid mine drainage and illegal dumping.

She said the Armstrong County Conservation District, the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team and other environmental agencies began treating the water and cleaning dump sites. The stream team continues monitoring the water quality to determine if additional treatment is needed, Hawkins added.

“People don't want to spend time on a filthy river, but they'll come to one that's been cleaned up and reclaimed,” Hawkins said. “It took decades to clean up, but now, the rivers are really contributing to the surrounding communities and pumping up their economies.”

Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-543-1303, ext. 1337, or bpedersen@tribweb.com.

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