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Great Allegheny Passage providing unique business opportunities

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, June 20, 2015, 3:26 p.m.

For Angela Bonnell, long-distance bicyclists traveling the Great Allegheny Passage, the 150-mile recreational trail connecting Pittsburgh with Cumberland, Md., are the lifeblood of her shuttle business that eases the burden of riders by transporting their gear to their day's destination.

Bonnell has operated Sunshine Luggage Shuttle LLC of Confluence for four years, but it is only in the past two years that the business of shuttling bicyclists' gear has taken off. The 35-year-old Bonnell has seen her business grow from just eight jobs to 60 bookings so far this year and will surpass the 62 shuttle jobs she had last year is on pace to top last year's filling a niche for services created by trail.

“They don't have to pack their stuff in bags on their bikes. When I take it, they (bicyclists) can take more. The trail has been great,” said Bonnell, who has shuttled equipment as far north as West Newton and to Cumberland, the eastern terminus of the trail, in her sport utility vehicle.

Bonnell's business has benefitted from an increase in trail riders planning a multiple-day trip, up from 23 percent in 2011 to 57 percent last year, according to a survey of 560 users of the Great Allegheny Passage. The survey was conducted from July to October 2014 in West Newton, Connellsville, Ohiopyle, Confluence, Rockwood, Meyersdale and three trail towns in Allegheny County, as well as two in Maryland.

About 62 percent of the trail users surveyed were planning an overnight stay, more than double from 2011, according to the economic impact survey conducted by the Trail Town Program, an initiative of the Progress Fund in Greensburg.

Twenty-one percent of the trail users surveyed were traveling 335 miles from Pittsburgh to Cumberland and onto Washington, D.C., via the C&O Canal Trail, while about 13 percent made the shorter trip from Pittsburgh to Cumberland.

Trail users staying overnight spent an average of $128 in 2014, a $26 increase from 2008, the survey found.

The increase in the percentage of trail users planning an overnight stay and the increase in spending by those who find lodging along the trail has a significant positive economic impact, said Susan Ryan, a California University of Pennsylvania professor who oversees Cal U's tourism studies program.

The tourists – defined as those who travel more than 50 miles to a destination – have a more positive economic impact because they are injecting new money into the local economy, said Ryan, who is director of the Cal U Tourism Research Center.

The average trail rider spends $18 per day along the trail, with an average of $59 spent at restaurants and on snacks and beverages, the survey found.

With more businesses being involved in offering services to trail users, trail traffic is spreading through trail towns, said Will Prince, coordinator of the Trail Town Program. Trail users make about one million trips annually, according to the Allegheny Trail Alliance, a coalition of trail groups that maintain the hiking and biking path.

“Each year, it gets a little better. People are spending more and more. It's an extra piece of business,” Prince said.

Coleen Kudlik has seen that “extra piece of business” at her convenience store-luncheonette, Miller's Place in Sutersville, even though the trail riders must cross the Youghiogheny River to get to town. Trail users stop to eat, drink and use their electronic devices, Kudlik said.

“If more people knew we were here, they would come over,” the Sutersville Bridge, Kudlik said, lamenting the lack of signage permitted along the trail to inform users of trail-related amenities.

The challenge for businesses to attract the trail users is that the composition of those trail tourists is somewhat “book-ended” by two dominant groups in terms of volume – millennials and baby boomers, Ryan said.

“Both groups have vastly different expectations for service, which can be a challenge for those who provide trail adjacent tourist amenities like food and beverage and accommodation. However, both groups have equal expectations of authenticity, which is an overwhelming distinction of the Great Allegheny Passage,” Ryan said.

In West Newton, business at The Trailside, a restaurant and pub just off the trail, has seen growth for five consecutive years, said owner Rod Darby.

“We're definitely seeing an uptick in business over last year,” said Darby, whose restaurant has a deck overlooking the trail. Business has been strong enough that Darby has added two employees.

Mary Lou Rendulic, who operates the Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast, The Annex Inn and the new Willow Springs Inn just off the Great Allegheny Passage in West Newton, has seen her lodging business grow each year.

“We're finding that we are renting more and more rooms per season,” said Rendulic, who opened Bright Morning Bed & Breakfast in 2002 with her husband, Robert.

Almost 90 percent of the guests staying at the bed and breakfast – 12 rooms spread over three houses – come off the trail for lodging, said Robert Rendulic.

Businesses reported an overall increase in trail user traffic from 34 percent in 2013 to 41 percent last year. An average of 6 percent of the trail traffic patronizing businesses were international visitors, based on a survey of 45 businesses, mostly eateries, lodging and stores, from October 2014 to February 2015.

Forty percent of the businesses surveyed planed to expand and about two-thirds of those attribute their expansion plans to the impact from the trail.

Bonnell wants to expand her business next year, similar to the 27 percent of the businesses surveyed that plan to expand their operations. Sixty-seven percent of those planning an expansion said it was due to trail traffic, an increase from 46 percent in 2011. Bonnell, whose jobs allows her the flexibility she needs in raising four children, ages 4 months to 7 years old, wants to purchase a 5-foot-by-8-foot enclosed trailer so she can transport luggage and bikes for large groups.

The length of the trail has helped the “secondary gateways” to the Great Allegheny Passage, towns such as West Newton that do not have the natural tourism draw like Ohiopyle, the center of a state park and a site for whitewater rafting, which are considered primary gateways, Ryan said.

One of those towns hoping to become a “secondary gateway” to the Great Allegheny Passage is Dunbar, which lies between Connellsville and Ohiopyle and is connected to the GAP by the two-mile Sheepskin Trail.

A group of Dunbar community leaders and business owners are seeking to attract trail users by promoting the town's industrial heritage, which centers around the production of coke in old coke ovens that still dot the scenery.

“Industrial heritage tourism has really grown,” Geno Gallo, an aide to Fayette County Commissioner Al Ambrosini, said at a recent meeting in Dunbar.

But, industrial heritage is not attractive to everybody, Cal U's Ryan said.

While having industrial heritage featured in a tourism area is an asset, “one of these challenges is determining the tourist value of former industrial sites, especially since many of those have been significantly degraded over time,” Ryan said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jnapsha@tribweb.com or 724-836-5252.

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