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More people are discovering the Great Allegheny Passage

| Monday, Aug. 13, 2012
Dave Saunders, right, of Elizabeth Township and Dave Hreha of Munhall enjoy their customary 30-mile Sunday ride on the Youghiogheny River Trail on August 12, 2012 near West Newton. The two frequently ride the trail and Saunders just returned from a three-day bicycling trip with his son to Washington D.C. from Cumberland, Maryland on the C&O portion of the Great Allegheny Passage. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

Brad Smith, owner of Confluence Cyclery, clears pins from a map in the back of the shop each winter.

Each represents visitors from nearly every state in the country who have passed through the Hughart Street store as they ride the Great Allegheny Passage.

“It's populated with pins from all over,” he said. “We have people from all over the world who come here.”

The Trail Town Program, which recently released the results of a trail user survey it compiled, found that businesses along the trail can attribute 30 percent of revenues to the trail.

That's up from 25 percent in its survey in 2008.

More than 800,000 trips each year are taken on the trail through Allegheny, Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties, which connects with the C&O Canal Towpath to stretch more than 300 miles from Washington, D.C., to Homestead.

Will Prince, coordinator of the Trail Town Program, said he is encouraged to see that 22 percent of the 1,200 people surveyed at 11 trail- head locations between July and October 2011 were first-time visitors.

“People are still learning about it, finding out about it and discovering the Great Allegheny Passage,” he said.

Results of the 12-question survey by the program — an initiative of the Greensburg-based Progress Fund, — were analyzed by Peggy Dalton at Frostburg University in Maryland. Included in her analysis was a separate survey of 91 businesses near the trail in early 2012.

About 30 percent of the businesses surveyed plan to expand, down from 32 percent in 2008.

Smith, whose bike shop is in its fourth season, said he attributes that to the overall economy.

“Trail traffic is up,” he said. “There's definitely growth due to the trail.”

Despite seeing a slight dip in business this year, Smith's long-term plans still include expanding his retail space and renting a three-bedroom apartment above the business to trail users, he said.

“The more people you get on bikes, the better it is,” Smith said.

Twenty-eight percent of trail users reported an overnight stay during their trip, most often at campgrounds or bed and breakfasts.

The average spent on overnight accommodations is $114 — up from $98 in 2008, according to survey results.

Once travelers — called “through-trekkers” — make up their minds to bike the entire length of the trail, they will return to savor attractions in the region, said Ann Nemanic, who acts as trail concierge through the Laurel Highlands Visitors Bureau. It collaborated on the survey with the Trail Town Program and the Allegheny Trail Alliance.

“As they're going along, they realize how beautiful the topography is,” Nemanic said.

Just over 50 percent of those surveyed were between the ages of 45 and 64, which reflects visitors who have more time and discretionary income to spend at one of the 11 trail towns — including West Newton, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Rockwood and Meyersdale — in Pennsylvania, Prince said.

Nineteen percent of those surveyed started their trip in Boston, Allegheny County, while 18 percent started in West Newton.

Starting there on Saturday morning were Heather Tillman, 43, of Pittsburgh's South Side and her husband, Michael Wright, 48, who were planning to bike to Connellsville.

Tillman said they are glad the trail is available and they're awaiting its completion from Homestead to Pittsburgh.

“It's wonderful,” she said. “It's good motivation to get my keister out of the house and away from the cats.”

The couple said they plan eventually to gain the experience to do an overnight trip.

West Newton was the second-highest ending point for most trail trips, at 17 percent, bested only by Boston as the endpoint for 19 percent of the users surveyed. Ohiopyle and Cumberland followed in popularity.

Most of the visitors — 75 percent — were from Pennsylvania.

Nemanic said she believes that number will decrease once the final connection between the two major metropolitan cities has been made.

“It will open up a truly international market once the connection is made,” she said, speculating that people will start their journey in Washington, D.C., and then travel from the Great Allegheny Passage to the connecting Montour Trail directly to Pittsburgh International Airport.

The people of the region contribute just as much to the trail's success, Nemanic said. They are willing to lend a hand, a wrench or a cellphone to fellow trail visitors.

“It's a magical experience to ride it, but it's really cool when help magically appears along the trail,” she said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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